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Nigerian Peacekeeping Troops Arrive at Airport in Monrovia

By Somini Sengupta

the New York Times -- MONROVIA, Liberia

The first contingents of West African peacekeeping troops arrived here early Monday, stirring hopes that months of fighting might soon end.

With American forces offshore in three warships, and President Bush still undecided about deploying them in Liberia, about 200 Nigerian troops landed in helicopters at the airport but did not venture beyond it. They are the first of an expected force of 3,250 West African soldiers.

All day, Liberians in the government-controlled portion of the capital waited to see the first of the troops sent here to end the terrifying two-month battle for this city. Ignoring the pounding rain, they rushed onto the airport tarmac as the first helicopters carrying the Nigerians landed.

The Liberians cheered and sang songs and thanked God, as they have repeatedly over the last several weeks at every glimmer of hope. They wore T-shirts with a simple blue-stenciled message on the back: “Peace at Last.” White flags to represent peace were flying.

Yet there was still the routine crackle of gunfire. Thick black smoke rose from a building in a rebel-controlled area that has witnessed some of the bloodiest fighting in the last 16 days.

Fear was hardly banished. Relief, the people here said, would come when the force, which has promised to get between the warring factions and secure the city, has made its way to the rebel-controlled Free Port of Monrovia, the capital’s lifeline for food, fuel and medical supplies.

In Reuters Television footage, young men could be seen playing soccer on the rebel-held side while across the river, in the government-held part of the city, people have been ravaged by hunger, disease and the terror of stray bullets and mortar shells.

It has impossible to assess the relief needs on the rebel-held side, let alone in the rest of the country.

By day’s end, roughly 200 peacekeeping troops had arrived, part of a 770-strong Nigerian battalion that served as U.N. peacekeepers in Sierra Leone and is expected here over the next few days.

On Monday, men and women lined the main road from the airport, hoping to catch a glimpse of them.

Philomena Jah ventured as far as 50 yards beyond her front door in downtown Monrovia. It was the farthest she had stepped out in over two weeks. On Monday morning, she bought charcoal, hunted for cornmeal and waited for her prayers to be answered.

“We’re all waiting to see them,” she said of the West African force. “Their presence, you know, will give us some sort of security, some sort of relief.”

In Washington, Bush administration officials welcomed the deployment of the peacekeepers.