'If we don't get shot, we'll die of hunger'

A ship stocked with food is waiting off Liberia’s coast and aid could start flowing into the starving capital within days if rebels withdraw from the city’s port as promised, a UN official said on Wednesday.

Insurgents from Liberia’s main rebel movement have pledged to pull back from Monrovia’s capital at noon on Thursday, handing the vital port over to a small-but-growing peacekeeping force meant to impose calm in Liberia after 14 years of near-constant strife.

Carolyn McAskie, UN deputy emergency relief coordinator, said if rebels pull back, the ship could land and aid workers could, over the weekend, begin moving food into government-held areas of besieged Monrovia, where starvation looms for many who have subsisted for weeks on leaves.

But, “peacekeepers must provide support to humanitarian workers,” she said, citing the danger of looting by gunmen.

Even as officials scrambled to get aid moving into Monrovia, a second rebel group began a push towards Monrovia from their stronghold in the country’s southeast on Tuesday.

Refugees fled what they called indiscriminate attacks, raising fears that the rebels may be fighting for a share of power after Charles Taylor stepped down as president.

“People are coming and killing,” said Pauline Johnson, standing in a downpour and clutching an infant to her breast, after running from her home without pausing to gather any possessions.

Rebels from the main insurgent group have held Monrovia’s port and surrounding districts since roughly July 19, cutting off aid and food to refugees and civilians on the government-held side of the city.

Warehouses at the port have been pillaged, including at least three depots of the UN World Food Programme that had 10 000 tons of aid.

McAskie said she hoped several tons of maize meal remained in storage containers at the port. UN workers are also ready to fly in cooking oil and lentils from neighbouring Sierra Leone, she said, but more peacekeepers are needed beyond the current vanguard force of about 800 Nigerian soldiers.

“There are definitely not enough peacekeepers on the ground,” she said while praising the initial deployment of a force meant to grow to 3 250 soldiers as an “important symbolic presence.”

In the capital, markets offer little but harvested leaves. Earlier on Tuesday, government fighters fired over the heads of hundreds of civilians massed at one of the bridges leading to the port, demanding to be allowed to cross in search of food.

“Everybody’s hungry.
If we don’t die from gunfire we’ll die of hunger,” said a former university instructor Sylvester Lumeh (35).

“We have to take a chance.”

Rebel official Sekou Fofana confirmed rebels would withdraw from the port, telling reporters, “We did not come and seize the port for any reason except security reasons. There is no reason to remain ourselves at the free port after Taylor has left.”

Brigadier-General Festus Okonkwo of Nigeria, the West African peace force commander, said the government side also needed to withdraw its militias from the city under Tuesday’s accord.

It’s not clear whether that meant regular Liberian forces as well as militias would be made to pull out. The accord said nothing about a government militia pullback.

The agreement, meanwhile, also pins the still-forming multinational force to a timetable—forcing it to speed up deployment throughout the city.

West African nations negotiated Taylor’s exit and pledged a peace force after rebels fighting a three-year war to oust Taylor began a push into Monrovia two months ago, leaving at least 1 000 civilians dead and the capital divided.

Taylor ceded power to his deputy, Moses Blah, on Monday and went into exile in Nigeria, ending 14 years of conflict begun when Taylor, then a rebel, launched Liberia into civil war in 1989.

Since landing the first troops on August 4, peacekeepers have ventured only occasionally into the city from their temporary base at Liberia’s main airport.

Despite international pressure to intervene, the United States so far has only sent about 100 marines, including those protecting the US Embassy, to Monrovia, while three US warships carrying about 4 500 marines and sailors await off Liberia’s shore.

On Tuesday, a senior defence official in Washington said the United States may send small numbers of additional marines ashore if US and West African commanders decide they are needed to start humanitarian aid flowing.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no decisions have been made to expand the US military presence in Liberia.

Meanwhile, new fighting flared on Tuesday on Liberia’s second front, the southeast, held by the smaller, newer rebel group.

The Movement for Democracy in Liberia confirmed it was advancing toward Liberia’s main airport, a 45-minute drive from Monrovia. Its leaders, pushing north from the southeastern port city of Buchanan, claimed they were responding to attacks by Taylor’s forces.

Countless civilians fled through the bush in pouring rain, running toward Monrovia.

In Ghana, site of off-and-on peace talks for Liberia, the movement’s representative, Tiah Slanger, confirmed Tuesday’s fighting. “We’re in touch with our commanders, impressing them to stop fighting,” Slanger said. - Sapa-AP

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