MONROVIA, Liberia – President Bush has signed off on sending U.S. troops to Liberia (search), Fox News has learned.
Less than a dozen liaison officers will be on the ground in Liberia as early as Wednesday to support and train West African security forces already in the war-ravaged nation. One official told The Associated Press that the team could grow to as large as 20 in coming days.
However, the soldiers are not being sent to lay the groundwork for other, much larger deployments, officials told Fox News.
The Bush administration had previously said the Americans would deploy only after President Charles Taylor (search) leaves. Bush's order marks the first US. deployment to sub-Saharan Africa since 1993, when 18 American soldiers were killed while on a peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
Meanwhile, the USS Iwo Jima amphibious assault ship has moved in to about 40 miles off the coast of Liberia. However, U.S. officials said, the movement was not to be taken as a sign that a bigger force movement is imminent.
Earlier on Tuesday, Liberian rebels darted across contested bridges to shake hands with government fighters -- many as young as 10 and barely bigger than their AK-47s -- as a steadily building West African deployment brought an edgy day of calm to the gutted, looted capital.
International aid agencies sped aid shipments to Monrovia (search), bloodied by two months of rebel sieges that have killed more than 1,000 civilians and cut the capital off from food, clean water and all but the barest medical care.
Pallets with tons of relief aid piled up at Liberia's main airport as white U.N. helicopters shuttled in Nigerian troops of a promised 3,250-member West African deployment.
It will be days before the peace troops move from the airport into the capital, but their mere presence in the country was enough to still AK-47s in the war-divided city.
"My brother, what are we fighting for?" declared rebel commander Gen. Acapulco as he embraced government Col. George P. Rollins on Monrovia's New Bridge.
Target of repeated rebel pushes toward Taylor's downtown stronghold, the bridge and two others leading from the rebel-held port had been a killing zone for two weeks, raked by mortar rounds, rockets and automatic weapons fire.
"I have no problem with you, my brother," said Acapulco, who wore a T-shirt proclaiming, "I want to be a millionaire," shaking the officer's hand. "We are only against one person. That is Charles Taylor."
"Only foreign intervention made this possible," Rollins responded. "Maybe our commanders would be ordering us to kill each other -- but we are Liberians."
As they spoke, 15-year-old rebel fighter Rosalyn Tappeh, in jeans and bikini top, shared a cigarette with 17-year-old government fighter Sah Aruna.
"She is my sister," Aruna said. "Maybe I will marry her one day."
At one point, three lower-ranking rebels darted across the bridge, shaking hands with their government rivals before running back.
The scene at the nearby Old Bridge was like a school party -- one redolent with marijuana and bristling with arms.
Government troops of 10- and 12-years-old, barely bigger than their assault rifles, waved, posed and strutted for rebel fighters on the other side, doing the same.
As late as Monday, none would have dared approach the bridges.
"Our brothers on the other side are clearly tired of fighting. Just like our men here," said Prince Hilton, a 27-year-old computer technician watching from the government side.
U.S. Ambassador John Blaney was among those traveling to the rebel side in a convoy with West African force officials. In a building with tarps hung across shattered windows, they appealed to rebels to open the port for humanitarian access.
Rebel chief of staff Maj. Gen. Abdulla Seyeah Sheriff told reporters that would happen only when Taylor resigned and left Liberia.
Later, Taylor's military chief of staff, Gen. Benjamin Yeaten, warned that if rebels fail to withdraw from the port it could "tempt me" to break the cease-fire.
The halt in fighting for the first time allowed journalists to see the devastation in the port.
Gaping holes from shelling gutted buildings. Six bodies -- some naked and others with their hands tied behind their backs -- lay on sidewalks and water-clogged streets among cans of orange juice, emptied boxes and other looted goods.
Rebels shot at one man, apparently one of their own fighters, who they said had been looting.
Before an Associated Press Television News camera, the man fell to the sidewalk. It was unclear if he died.
Slapping and jabbing them with rifle barrels, a senior rebel officer's entourage stopped rebels elsewhere as they looted a truck, taking containers of condensed milk, margarine and mosquito spray by the armful.
Looting has been heavy on both sides, with government troops breaking into homes, roughing up and sexually assaulting families, and pillaging TVs and other goods.
Dressed bizarrely even by the standards of Liberian combat, rebels spoke of a life after fighting.
"I want peace," 17-year-old rebel Prince Kollie said, his shaved head painted in fluorescent orange and green spray paint.
Pointing to a reporter's notebook, he added: "I want to go to school, and use a pen and paper."
Talking of what it would take to get Taylor to resign, some rebels nodded at their guns. "I don't trust Taylor will step down, because he is a criminal," said rebel Lt. Gen. Philip Kamara.
The break in fighting brought out hungry families to scour for food. They found little in the capital.
Normally crowded markets held only piles of potato greens and chili peppers. Rice -- in recent days selling for $1 a cup -- was nowhere in sight. Gasoline hit $30 a gallon, when it could be found.
Two days into the U.N.-backed mission, Nigerian commanders at the airport said they could deploy to the capital, opening up aid routes, only after enough troops and armored vehicles arrive.
A guerrilla fighter who launched Liberia into civil war in 1989, Taylor is blamed for 14 years of conflicts in Liberia that have killed more than 100,000 people. And a U.N.-Sierra Leone war crimes indictment accuses Taylor of crimes against humanity for backing Sierra Leone's rebels.
Under pressure from West African leaders and Washington, Taylor has agreed to cede power on Monday. However, Taylor has repeatedly hedged on promises to go into exile in Nigeria, saying he would leave only when enough peacekeepers are on the ground and when the war crimes indictment is dropped.
In Washington, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said it was unclear whether Taylor would go, saying: "I don't know what he'll ultimately do ...Whether he will or not, time will tell. And I've heard of nothing that suggests that the charges against him are likely to be dropped."
In South Africa, President Thabo Mbeki said Taylor had promised in a phone call not to linger after giving up power Monday. Taylor "will leave as soon as possible after that, either the same day or the day after, to Nigeria," Mbeki said.
However, Nigerian presidential aide Stanley Macebuh said there were signs of reluctance.
"It appears Mr. Taylor is unwilling to take the Nigeria offer" of exile, Macebuh told reporters. He seems to be nursing fresh ambitions to remain in power."
Fox News' Bret Baier, Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.