MONROVIA, Liberia – American and West African military officers ventured into Monrovia's (search) rebel-held port for the first time Saturday and found aid warehouses looted and corpses floating by the docks. With days left in President Charles Taylor's (search) regime, his spokesman warned that government fighters might create chaos when he leaves.
"We are ready to kill and steal anytime," said a marijuana-toking government fighter, who goes by the name Red Devil. He spoke at an abandoned, bullet-pocked hotel serving as an outpost for Taylor's fighters on war-divided Monrovia's urban front lines.
The U.S. and West African officers negotiated for days to gain access to the port, across front lines. The access is crucial to opening humanitarian lines for Liberia's (search) capital — especially for the cut-off government side, where tens of thousands of civilians have little to eat but leaves.
Rebel fighters, clutching rocket launchers and taped-up assault rifles, escorted the West African troops, three U.S. Marines, and a U.S. Embassy military attache, Army Col. Sue Ann Sandusky (search), through the port to view damage from more than two months of rebel sieges.
The West Africans and U.S. Marines, all in green camouflage, surveyed shelled, charred piers — looking for docking for aid ships to deliver desperately needed food to the war-ruined capital.
Discolored bodies, victims of the fighting, floated next to upended, rusted ships.
At one point, the gray-haired Sandusky stopped to chide a rebel boy, looking about 12, who stood with a bayonet blade thrust out. "Put that knife away," she told him.
"See how easy that was?" a Marine, in camouflage and boots, asked when the rebel boy, abashed, slid the blade into its sheath.
Presence of a slowly building West African peace force, and former warlord Taylor's promise to resign on Monday, have helped bring a weak truce to Monrovia, while fighting persists in the countryside.
Vaani Passawe, Taylor's spokesman, said Saturday "our morale has been sapped," as the clock ticked on the president's tenure.
"The situation is likely to collapse unless some pressure is put to bear" on rebels, Passawe declared. "Once the president leaves, our boys might be stigmatized. If that is the case, you must expect chaos. Hell might just break loose."
The peace force had 687 troops on the ground in Liberia on Saturday, on its way to a promised 3,250-strong deployment.
The capital remains split, with rebels refusing to allow opening of the port, and the flow of its food, until peacekeepers deploy in numbers adequate to hold it against Taylor's fighters.
U.N. workers returned to Monrovia for the first time Saturday after evacuating during fighting in late July. They had hoped to find largely intact World Food Program warehouses, holding the bulk of the agency's 10,000-ton stockpile of wheat, corn meal and other goods.
Instead, the U.S.-West African assessment mission found looted warehouses, with a trail of corn meal and crushed crackers in the otherwise all-but-empty buildings.
A rebel civilian official, A.L. Hadjia Sekou Fofana, insisted that government forces were responsible. "If anybody loot, they are placed on firing squad," Fofana said.
The West African peace force's chief of staff, Col. Theophilus Tawiah of Ghana, told reporters that rebels had agreed to put in place a U.S.-backed proposal for a humanitarian corridor to the port as soon as peacekeepers build up an adequate force. Tawiah did not say when that would be.
Kabineh Ja'Neh, a top rebel official at off-and-on peace talks in Ghana, said he was in favor of the humanitarian corridor "in principle." He stressed rebels had yet to make a formal decision on it.
Ja'neh insisted the rebels are still "committed to the cease fire, now more than ever."
Efforts to get humanitarian programs going again in the capital come with two days left in Taylor's regime — if he quits as promised.
Taylor, a former warlord blamed for 14 years of conflict here, has pledged to resign Monday and go into exile in Nigeria some unspecified time after.
Taylor's government has refused comment on suggestions that Taylor could leave as soon as Monday, escorted by fellow West African leaders they say are coming for a resignation ceremony. The president has been reported as being adamant that he should have a dignified send-off.
Daniel Chea (search), Taylor's defense minister, said the government would not be to blame for any violence accompanying a post-Taylor power vacuum. "Taylor's departure results in collapse, then it means those who blamed him for the violence are wrong."
Along the front line, Taylor's soldiers said they knew no way now but fighting.
"I grew up with the gun and the gun will keep me going unless someone helps me," said 25-year-old Isaac Taylor as other fighters butchered a dog for dinner.