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Monrovia Residents Get Badly Needed Food - 2003-08-15


West African peacekeepers in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, opened the city's main bridge on Friday, reconnecting areas that had been divided during a two-month rebel siege. Hungry residents rushed across the bridge to the city's port to buy badly needed food supplies.

An enormous human traffic jam clogged Monrovia's New Bridge on Friday, with tens of thousands of people shoving their way toward both ends of the bridge.

Most of the people moving to and fro are from the government-held downtown area, which for weeks has not had access to food stockpiled in the rebel-held seaport.

Many downtown residents headed home were laden with sacks of rice, cooking oil, and other goods bought from a market near the port.

One resident, who identifies himself only as Opie, says he will finally be able to provide his family a decent meal, after more than a week of eating nothing but potato leaves.

"I'm happy! I'm too happy. I'm overjoyed. Yes!" he exclaimed.

On Thursday, Liberia's main rebel group, called LURD, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, handed over the port area to U.S. and African officials. At the same time, about 200 U.S. troops arrived in Monrovia to assist Nigerian-led peacekeeping forces, known as ECOMIL, in their efforts to secure the war-ravaged city.

The United Nations World Food Program sent its first ship into Monrovia's port on Friday, since fighting between LURD and forces loyal to the now-exiled leader, Charles Taylor, intensified two months ago.

But WFP spokesman Hans Vikoler says the ship is delivering some food, but mainly communications equipment, furniture, and other supplies the agency needs to restart its distribution program.

"This is a supply vessel transformed by WFP into an operational vessel to support initial operations on the ground," he said.

WFP's main warehouse and office near the port were badly damaged by looters earlier this week. Thousands of people ransacked other aid warehouses, and left behind hundreds of empty shipping containers.

Because of the port's vital importance to restoring the humanitarian aid flow, a large team of ECOMIL peacekeepers and U.S. Marines have been deployed to protect it.

Marine spokesman Gunnery Sergeant Mark Bradley says helping ECOMIL soldiers secure the port is one of the main reasons U.S. troops have been sent into Monrovia.

"We have a few engineers on hand to help out with perimeter security, repairing fences and doing whatever we can to lend support to ECOMIL forces, and making sure we have a secure environment for the humanitarian aid to flow into Liberia," he said.

Aid workers say they are working as quickly as they can to be able to receive and distribute large amounts of food. But with so much of their infrastructure destroyed, it is still unclear when the first shipment of aid will reach Liberians.