MONROVIA, Liberia – Famished Liberians on Tuesday shrugged off the departure of former President Charles Taylor (search), any joy at the ex-warlord's downfall tempered by near starvation in the rebel-besieged capital and reports of fresh killings.
Rebels rejected the rule of new President Moses Blah (search) -- appointed Monday as Taylor ceded power and went into exile in Nigeria -- and said they were still ready to fight.
"The guns will be silent for now, but we will not cooperate politically or diplomatically," with Blah's administration, said a rebel official, Sekou Fofana.
"We will be standing by, ready for any aggression by Charles Taylor's forces," he told reporters at a rebel command post across a frontline river from government fighters, still holding their ground.
Rebels attacking the capital since June seized Monrovia's seaside port, cutting off the flow of food into government-held areas and leaving people subsisting on leaves and other foraged nourishment.
The insurgents say they will only hand the port to a growing West African peace force when it has sufficient strength to hold the harbor from government advance.
Monrovia's hungry people and U.S. and West African diplomats demanded rebels open it soon, as starvation looms and weakened people fall prey to disease.
"Charles Taylor was the obstacle to peace," said 23-year-old student Emmanuel Barcon, outside the U.S. embassy in government-controlled Monrovia. "Now he is gone and we just want the port to open."
"A hungry man is an angry man -- and we're hungry," said Solomon Blamco, 25, threatening to storm the port himself.
Hundreds of scared people walking toward Monrovia (search) from the direction of Liberia's second-city, Buchanan, reported a march toward the capital by Liberia's smaller rebel group, generally allied with those holding the port.
They said fighters had moved within miles of Liberia's government-held airport, 30 miles from the capital's presidential palace, threatening a new front. Nearly 800 Nigerian peacekeeping soldiers are stationed at the airport.
The fighters were moving house to house, slashing and killing civilians with cutlasses, witnesses said.
"People are coming and killing," said Pauline Johnson, standing in a downpour and clutching an infant.
The leader of U.S. forces in the region, Army Maj. Gen. Thomas Turner, flew by helicopter to the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia to discuss getting food from the port into government-held areas.
Turner, head of a 2,300-strong Marine expeditionary force aboard U.S. warships off Liberia's Atlantic coast, met with Ambassador John Blaney on Tuesday, embassy officials said.
U.S. officials said they hoped to travel to the port Tuesday to extract a pledge from rebel leaders to pull back, widen a buffer zone along the tense front line and let humanitarian aid flow into other parts of Monrovia.
The United States, which oversaw Liberia's founding by freed slaves in the 19th century, has provided some logistical support and funding to the West African peace mission. But it has avoided the leading role that many -- including Liberians -- say it has the historical obligation to take on.
The ex-warlord and U.N. indicted war criminal flew into exile in Nigeria on Monday after surrendering his presidency, pressured by the United States and regional leaders, and besieged by a three-year rebel insurgency that had taken most of the country.
Hundreds of Liberians, thin and ragged, prayed his departure would mark a turning point for their war-torn country.
Taylor, blamed for 14 years of nearly incessant warfare in Liberia, handed power to Vice President Moses Blah. Three U.S. warships briefly moved into view off Monrovia's beaches within minutes of the transfer ceremony.
President Bush called Taylor's departure "an important step" but gave no hint whether it moved him closer toward deploying more U.S. troops to assist with peacekeeping or humanitarian relief efforts.
Fellow West African leaders also lauded Taylor for yielding power.
"It is our estimation that today, the war in Liberia has ended," declared President John Kufuor of Ghana, who with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and South African President Thabo Mbeki was instrumental in coaxing Taylor into exile.
In Accra, Ghana, site of off-and-on peace talks for Liberia, rebel leader Sekou Conneh agreed. "The war is over," he said. "I'm happy and I know everybody is happy."
Nigeria's president welcomed Taylor at the international airport in Abuja. "Here was a man who decided to make a sacrifice, believing that sacrifice would bring his country peace," Obasanjo said.
Nigerian security forces say privately they will monitor Taylor to keep him from continuing as Liberia's power-broker from exile.
At Monday's handover ceremony in Monrovia, Taylor mentioned returning to Liberia -- despite admitted fears of assassination and an international arrest warrant by a U.N. war crimes court for Sierra Leone, which accuses him of trafficking with rebels in a brutal civil war.
Accusing the United States anew of forcing him out, Taylor showed nothing suggesting repentance for launching once-prosperous Liberia into bloodshed in 1989, when as a rebel he led a small insurgency to topple then-President Samuel Doe.
Taylor, a Liberian-born, Boston-educated business student who trained in guerrilla fighting in Libya, faces a U.N.-backed war-crimes indictment for his trafficking with a vicious rebel movement in neighboring Sierra Leone.
Standing U.N. sanctions against him and dozens of associates accuse him of diamond- and arms-trafficking with insurgents in much of West Africa.
The sweaty, crowded handoff ceremony featured Blah and Taylor under generator-lit chandeliers, run by scrounged fuel in a war-battered city that has been without electricity for years.
Family, friends and a small lingering cadre of supporters cried and wailed at Liberia's main airport as Taylor climbed the stairs of a jet provided by Obasanjo.
Blah is expected to hand power in October to a transition government meant to lead Liberia into elections.