/ 14 August 2003

Bush says he won’t go after Taylor

US President George Bush said on Wednesday that his priority was to send aid to Liberia, not to seek extradition of its former president Charles Taylor. US troops have also arrived Monrovia and will help peacekeepers get food and supplies into the war-battered city.

US President George Bush said on Wednesday that his priority was to send aid to Liberia, not to seek extradition of its former president Charles Taylor.

Bush was asked about Nigeria’s refusal to extradite Taylor, who is sought by a UN tribunal to face warcrimes charges.

”They can work that out with how they deal with Taylor,” Bush said.

”One, I’m glad he’s gone.

”But my focus now is on making sure that humanitarian relief gets to the people who are suffering in Liberia,” he told reporters at his Texas ranch where he is vacationing.

”And one of the things I have said all along was that we’re there to help Ecomil do its job by providing the conditions necessary for the arrival of relief.”

Ecomil is the African military force under Nigerian command sent to Liberia to put an end to the rebel fighting.

”And that’s why we’ve got an assessment team on the ground that is dealing with the Nigerian who’s in charge of Ecomil to determine what is necessary to help Ecomil do its job,” said Bush.

”They are in the lead, and we are there to support and help. You know, obviously, one place we’ve got to make sure is secure and open is the port.”

US troops arrived in Liberia on Thursday to assist west African peacekeepers in securing Monrovia’s rebel-held port and allow food and essential supplies into the war-battered city.

The troops, including a 150-strong rapid reaction force, flew into Monrovia’s Robertsfield airport.

Liberian rebels have agreed to hand over the port at noon (1200 GMT).

Nigeria rejected US demands that it send Taylor to face war crimes charges, standing by its decision to grant the former warlord asylum.

Taylor, who stepped down on Monday and left for Nigeria, has been indicted by a UN-backed court in Freetown which is investigating crimes committed during a decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone which left 200 000 dead.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo had offered the former Liberian leader political asylum as part of West African attempts to mediate an end to a five-year civil war in Liberia.

Meanwhile, thousands of civilians and rebel soldiers stormed the port of Monrovia yesterday in a frenzy of looting that stripped tons of food from warehouses and shipping containers.

Entire districts of the Liberian capital were clogged with people who carried, dragged, pushed and wheeled what they could, as rebels fired in the air and waved knives in a vain effort to stop the chaos.

Believing it was their last chance before Nigerian-led peacekeepers were due to move in today, the looters turned the free port into precisely that.

”Gotta grab it while you can,” said Tita Weah (19) eight months’ pregnant and knee-high in yellow maize meal which spilled from white sacks emblazoned with EU logos. Her mother, Frances Toba (39) was lightening a 50kg sack of half its load so she could carry it the two miles back home.

Behind them a single file of adults and children were tramping out of the port with bags of US corn meal on their heads.

The air reeked of fermented grain, like a brewery. Since seizing the port several weeks ago the rebels have plundered and distributed stocks from the UN World Food Programme, but a promise to hand control to peacekeepers today precipitated yesterday’s free-for-all.

Some people on the government-held side of Monrovia, which is close to starvation, walked through neck-high swamps to join the looting, according to witnesses.

One UN official consoled himself that at least some of the food appeared to be finding its way to deserving people. Much found its way to the rebels. They were the ones in the lorries and four-wheel drives rolling out of warehouses.

Some were jubilant, letting off AK-47s to celebrate the departure of President Charles Taylor and directing people to the food.

But later in the day commanders arrived and threatened to shoot looters — the civilian ones. Elsewhere the rebels prepared for their withdrawal by strapping tables, chairs and mattresses to vehicles that raced up and down the road known as UN Drive.

Offshore a UN food ship waited. Carolyn McAskie, a deputy emergency relief coordinator, said that once the rebels pulled back aid workers onboard could begin moving food in. She hoped several tonnes of corn meal remained in storage containers at the port and said the UN was planning to fly in cooking oil and lentils. ”The situation on the ground is very desperate,” she said.

The new president, Moses Blah, said US fighter planes would soon start patrols in a show of force. One US warship moved closer to shore, boosting hopes that US marines will join the Nigerians.

Meanwhile, fighting continued between a second rebel group and government forces in the second city of Buchanan. – Guardian Unlimited Â