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Monrovia Residents Take Advantage of Cease-Fire to Find Food, Water - 2003-08-05

The capital of Liberia enjoyed a rare day of peace on Tuesday, as government and rebel forces in Monrovia agreed to an informal cease-fire to allow an advance team of West African peacekeepers to assess the city's security situation. The peacekeepers are yet to be deployed in Monrovia.

Just a day ago, government and rebel forces were still locked in a bitter struggle for two strategic bridges that link downtown Monrovia to the rebel-held port on Bush Road Island.

But in an extraordinary gesture Tuesday, the two sides traded handshakes instead of bullets and agreed to observe a cease-fire.

Minutes later, government soldiers allowed journalists to cross the bridges to Bush Road Island. On the other side, a commander with the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, Colonel Alou Sheriff, told VOA that the rebels have no intention of withdrawing from the area before the arrival of peacekeeping troops.

"We don't want to leave this territory for the government to come in, to occupy the area," he stressed. "We are here to receive the peacekeeping troops and turn the area over to them."

The cease-fire is shaky at best, but Monday's arrival of the first contingent of about 300 Nigerian peacekeepers has given Liberians renewed hope that a solution can be found to end the country's latest conflict.

Rebels opposed to Liberian President Charles Taylor have been fighting a three year-long war to capture Monrovia and topple Mr. Taylor, who was democratically elected in 1997.

In the capital Tuesday, Liberians took advantage of the lull in the fighting to find food and clean drinking water.

Tens of thousands of residents poured out into the streets and walked without fear. Hundreds of civilians have died in recent weeks after being hit by stray bullets or mortars.

One resident named Emmanuel says many people believe the presence of the peacekeepers will make the latest cease-fire hold.

"I think things are becoming a little bit normal because people are getting the feeling that country will be fine and they are seeing the troops," he said.

So far, most people in Monrovia have only seen the peacekeepers on television. Troops, expected to number as many as 3,000 in the coming weeks, are still arriving in Liberia and none have yet been deployed in the capital.

President Taylor, who had earlier agreed to step down from office next Monday and leave Liberia, appears to be having second thoughts. He reportedly told Nigerian officials he would not accept Nigeria's offer of asylum unless he was given immunity from prosecution for war crimes. The departure of Mr. Taylor from Liberia is a key rebel demand.