MONROVIA, Liberia - Leaping from white United Nations helicopters into a torrential rain, heavily armed Nigerian peacekeepers arrived in Liberia yesterday, ending weeks of uncertainty over an international rescue mission and bringing hope to desperate civilians.
As the peacekeepers fanned out across the runway of Monrovia's Robertsfield airport and crouched in defensive positions, mobs of jubilant people overwhelmed security to welcome them. They sang and shouted what has become a common slogan in war-weary Liberia: "No more war! We want peace!"
"I am very happy with the arrival of the peacekeepers because this will ease the tension and bring some relief to us Liberians," said 33-year-old Eric Kanwie. "We are in very desperate need of them."
While there was more fighting in Monrovia, the government and rebels also said they welcomed the peacekeepers. More than 1,000 civilians have been killed in two months of fighting, which has forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee to Monrovia and caused critical shortages of food and water. Disease is rampant.
The 198 soldiers who arrived yesterday were the first contingent of a force that is expected to grow to as many as 15,000 troops. Their arrival is expected to pave the way for the departure of President Charles Taylor and help end Liberia's 14-year civil war. Taylor has pledged to step down Monday.
It was unclear when the soldiers would head into the heart of Monrovia, about 30 miles away. At least one armored personnel carrier with mounted machine guns was flown in with the Nigerian troops, but military officials said the troops would remain at the airport until the arrival of artillery.
Along the road between the airport and the capital was a grim reminder of the war's toll. As the peacekeepers' helicopters droned in the distance, gravediggers tossed 66 naked corpses into a hurriedly dug mass grave. The majority of the dead were victims of the fighting whose remains had been left unclaimed in the morgue at Monrovia's main hospital.
As the mangled bodies were being loaded from the belly of a large truck, residents stood pensively at the curb, worried that they might recognize the remains of a loved one.
Mamie Queayker collapsed when she spotted the body of her husband, 26-year-old Henry Dubor. Friends quickly carried her from the site.
"I wanted to take his body to the funeral home," said the 25-year-old widow, her voice breaking. "But now ..."
At the United Nations, Hedi Annabi, assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, said 850 troops should be deployed by Aug. 17.
Officials also have begun planning for the deployment of a larger force by Oct. 1. Annabi said that the operation would be "sizable" and that it could include 15,000 troops. But he said it was too early to guarantee how many troops would be mustered, or whether they could be deployed by Oct. 1.
The Bush administration has ordered three warships carrying Marines to stand ready in the Atlantic Ocean for deployment. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has urged the United States to commit troops to the peacekeeping mission in Liberia, a West African country that was founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves.
A senior U.S. official in Washington said yesterday that the troops off the Liberian coast were ready to help the peacekeeping force with logistics and communications and that some would probably go ashore.
U.S. Ambassador John Blaney, who was among American, Liberian and Nigerian officials at the airport, said the arrival of the Nigerians was "very significant."
"This is a very positive step forward in terms of re-stabilizing Liberia," Blaney said.
The White House has said that any deployment of U.S. troops would be contingent upon Taylor leaving his country.
The Liberian president, who has been indicted by an international war crimes tribunal for supporting insurgents in neighboring Sierra Leone, previously accepted on offer of asylum in Nigeria, but questions remain about whether he will voluntarily relinquish power and leave.
Nigerian Foreign Minister Oluyemi Adeniji flew to Monrovia yesterday to meet with Taylor. Taylor's aides have said that he will seek to prove his innocence on the war crimes charges but that he was not willing to defend himself in front of the international tribunal because he did not feel he could get a fair trial.
In Rome, Sekou Conneh, leader of the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, promised to cooperate with the peacekeepers.
"They should be able to provide security for civilians, then we can withdraw," said Conneh, who was in Rome for talks with international mediators.
Other rebel leaders said the crisis had entered its final stretch.
"This is the beginning of the end of Mr. Taylor and anarchy in Liberia," said Gen. Joe Wylie, a military adviser, who spoke from the Ghanaian capital, Accra, where he is participating in negotiations aimed at creating an interim Liberian government.
He said Taylor's departure is essential for any peace agreement to succeed.
"If he continues to stay on, he could be the cause for another round of fighting and confusion," Wylie said. "It would be in his interest to leave, so people can live in peace."
Residents of the capital hope that the West African peacekeepers can end the fighting and allow relief groups to start distributing aid.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.