MONROVIA, Liberia # The first members of a peacekeeping force for the embattled Liberian capital will arrive from Nigeria on Wednesday, the head of the Economic Community of West African States said Sunday.
Nigeria will send two military battalions to be the forefront of a broader engagement by the international community and ECOWAS, a regional group of 16 West African nations, a U.N. official has said.
No date had been set for their deployment, but Sunday, Mohamed Chambas, the executive secretary of ECOWAS, told CNN that the Nigerians will be on site Wednesday.
Liberia has been the scene of fierce fighting between government troops and rebels seeking to topple Liberian President Charles Taylor. In recent weeks, the rebels have pushed into the capital, Monrovia.
On Sunday, mortar shells and bullets rained on the U.S. Embassy compound, where Ambassador John Blaney urged the government and the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) to use the Po River north of Monrovia as the new demarcation line between their forces.
“This natural boundary will help verification and monitoring personnel as well as peacekeepers coming to Liberia to secure and to rebuild the cease-fire,” he said. “It will require LURD to make only a partial withdrawal from its recent gains. The government of Liberia has said that its forces will not pursue LURD as LURD withdraws to the other side of the Po River.”
Matthew Tostevin, a Reuters journalist in the capital, reported that government and rebel positions moved little Sunday. Both sides made gains and lost them, he said.
The rebels are within the city but not at the city center, he said. They tried to advance across key bridges during the day but were beaten back, he said.
A number of civilians have been killed in recent days by stray mortar rounds that have hit churches and other buildings where they had fled seeking safety.
Tens of thousands of civilians left the countryside seeking shelter in the capital, only to encounter worse violence.
Amid the steady rain of the region’s wet season, there is no running water and little drinking water in the capital. People have taken to eating leaves off trees.
Those who are able walk the 40 miles [64 kilometers] to Monrovia’s airport for safety.
The United States has ordered Marines to the region to back the African peacekeepers. The first two ships are expected to arrive Saturday, and a third is scheduled to arrive several days later, a senior defense official has said.
U.S. officials told CNN that more than 2,000 Marines will likely be sent to the region.
So far, though, the U.S. troops are committed only to providing logistical and communications support to the ECOWAS peacekeeping force, and only if they are sent ashore, U.S. sources have said. Chambas said Saturday that will not be enough to ensure a lasting peace in Liberia.
“The offer of logistical support is appreciated,” Chambas told CNN, “but the task at hand demands that we have # at least in the initial phase of this operation # U.S. troops to support the West African forces which will be deployed in Liberia.”
He said a more direct U.S. role is needed “in order to send a right message that the U.S. will engage with West African countries to disarm the rebel groups and to set the peace process on the right track.”
President Bush has cited historical ties between the United States and Liberia as a reason for U.S. involvement. Liberia was founded as a home for freed U.S. slaves.
U.S. officials have also noted that unstable countries can serve as breeding grounds for terrorist groups, including al Qaeda.