MONROVIA, Liberia – Embracing loved ones and gulping down whatever food they could find, tens of thousands of hungry Liberians on Friday broke through the front lines that had divided the capital for 10 weeks of deadly siege. U.S. Marines and West African peacekeepers stood guard as the first aid ship docked.
Singing gospel songs, women surged over a bridge lined with bullet casings and shrapnel after crowds overran razor-wire barricades in search of rice, oil and other goods. All around, men and women toted bags, baskets and even wheelbarrows on their heads as they ventured out for food.
Monrovia's (search) New Bridge had been a deadly a no-man's-land since July 19, separating the cut-off and soon starving government side from the warehouses and other stockpiles around the rebel-held port.
Fighting in Monrovia has killed well over 1,000 people, and left hundreds of thousands of others wasting by the day.
A 14-year-old girl, Soleh Sando, stopped to accept a woman's gift of cornmeal, which she swallowed raw. "I haven't eaten in four days. I don't need to cook it today," she said.
Nearby, Musu Daffah dropped a bowl of cornmeal and ran sobbing into the arms of her sister, 24-year-old Memma, who was coming home after surviving repeated mortar attacks on the government side. "Hallelujah," Daffah cried. "Hallelujah."
Celebrations followed the rebels' withdrawal from the port and much of the surrounding areas. They remained on the edges of the capital Friday, rather than withdrawing to the Po River (search), miles outside Monrovia, as agreed.
The pullout, negotiated by an 11-day-old West African peace mission and U.S. diplomats, was in keeping with the rebel pledge to lift their siege of Monrovia once warlord-president Charles Taylor (search) resigned and left the country, and once peacekeepers deployed.
Withdrawal opened the port, and the wealth of food around it, to residents and refugees who'd subsisted on leaves, spiny snails and little else on the government side.
West African peacekeepers, trying to control the chaos, had planned to open the front-line bridges later Friday. But waiting crowds filling the streets on both sides overwhelmed the peacekeepers soon after daylight, sweeping past the barbed wire barricades.
"Nobody opened the bridge. They just overpowered us," said Pvt. Moses Peter of Nigeria (search), a peacekeeper.
Crowds raised their hands as they pushed past peacekeepers, showing they had no weapons.
At the port, West African forces and about 40 U.S. Marines held the newly razor-wire lined perimeter, guarding the first aid ship that docked Friday.
The aid ship held 3 tons of high-protein biscuits. More aid was due to arrive on flights and in relief ships standing by off neighboring countries, said Hans Vikoler of the World Food Program.
At Methodist University, U.N. World Food Program (search) officials were able to deliver the city's first truckload of food aid — bags of cornmeal — in weeks.
More aid is needed, said Jacques Klein, the U.N. special representative to Liberia. "We need a massive airlift here to deal with an international crisis," he told Associated Press Television News.
U.S. forces moved in Thursday, a 200-strong deployment landing by helicopters at Liberia's main airport to take some of the pressure off the steadily building West African peace mission.
The troop deployment is the first by the United States to Africa since Somalia in 1993.
U.S. troops include a 150-member rapid reaction force based at the airport, ready to back up West African peacekeepers in any assault.
Marines guarded the landing strip Friday in two Humvees armed with heavy caliber machine guns.
Rebels seized Monrovia's port and surrounding neighborhoods on Monrovia's Bushrod Island in a July 19 offensive aimed at ousting Taylor, a former warlord blamed for 14 years of bloodletting in the nation founded by freed American slaves.
The siege was the latest, and deadliest, of three since early June. The true death toll is impossible to calculate, but clearly high.
Blocked from cemeteries by fighting, residents had little choice but to gather the bodies of friends and strangers and slip them into marshes or bury them in Atlantic beaches ringing the city.
Many of those pouring across Friday came searching families.
"I heard my house was hit by rockets, and I've not heard from my family," said Philip Seh, an unemployed electrician who had been looking for jobs in central Monrovia when rebels divided the city.
Crossing over, he sought his wife, three children and brother on the former rebel-held side.
"I need to check to see if they're all right," Seh said, jostling across.
Taylor's former militias were crossing as well, residents said.
Taylor's fighters were feared during the siege for nightly rape and looting sprees on the government side. People in shantytowns near the bridges set off alarms, banging pots and pans, when three men were seen swimming across overnight holding knives.
Women and children fled, and men lit bonfires of wood and tires in slum alleyways, their ashes still burning late Friday.
Fighting continued Friday around the provincial town of Gbarnga, 110 miles north of the capital, government Gen. Adolphus Dolo said. A former stronghold of Taylor, the crossroads town is now in rebel hands.