Nearly 200 troops, most Nigerian, took up position around the airfield and other strategic locations Monday to pave the way for a larger, 3,250-member force.
The force, deployed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and authorized by the United Nations, faces “the very difficult task to try to bring Liberia back to normalcy,” Gen. Daniel Opande, commander of the U.N. force in Sierra Leone, told the troops.
The head of the largest rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), pledged to cooperate with the new force and to withdraw from critical locations as the peacekeepers arrived.
“We are going to work with them,” said LURD leader Sekou Conneh from Rome where he is attending talks with international mediators. “They should be able to provide security for civilians, then we can withdraw.”
Although the LURD leadership has pledged to work with the international force, officials have expressed concern that the group may be splintering and that Conneh may not have control over commanders in the field.
Despite the reservations, word of the troops’ arrival sparked huge celebrations in Monrovia. Hundreds rushed the airfield where the ECOWAS troops arrived, chanting, “We want peace.”
More than a thousand civilians have died in the capital in the last few months as forces loyal to the government of President Charles Taylor battled LURD and another key rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL).
The leaders of the new peacekeeping force said they recognized the high expectations that awaited them in Liberia.
“We know everyone is expecting us, and we hope to live up to their expectations,” said the new force’s chief of staff, Col. Theophilus Tawiah of Ghana.
Off the coast, two of three American warships carrying 2,300 U.S. Marines took up position Monday. Their mission is to aid the West African soldiers, but it was unclear if any of the Americans would come ashore during the deployment.
The African peacekeepers will work to stabilize the capital and then move to other major cities, Nigerian Brig. Gen. Festus Okonkwo, the commander of the force, told reporters late Sunday.
“We are going in with as much troops as possible,” Okonkwo said. “We know that the situation is bad in and around Monrovia.”
By October 1, 2003, the ECOWAS force will hand over control of the military and political operation to a U.N. force.
Taylor, a powerful warlord who was elected president in 1997 following a devastating civil war, has promised to leave office on Aug. 11. He has not said whether he will leave the country as the U.S. and other nations have demanded.
“Charles Taylor needs to keep his promise to his people, on whom he’s wreaked a lot of havoc over the years, to leave the country and allow a constitutional transfer that will ultimately lead to a political process that will help to stabilize Liberia,” U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said on the NewsHour last week.
Officials in the Taylor government have said he will leave the country only after the arrival of the bulk of the peacekeeping force. They have also said Taylor wants the U.N. to drop a war crimes indictment issued for his support of rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war.
More than 100,000 Liberians have died since Taylor’s forces invaded Liberia, sparking a 14-year battle for control of the small West African nation.