MONROVIA, Liberia – Humanitarian aid trickled into Liberia's (search) devastated capital by plane and boat Saturday, a welcome relief but not nearly fast enough for residents famished after 70 days of siege. Fighting persisted in the interior, blocking hopes of immediate help for the millions trapped there.
About 500 civilians gathered to stare at the gates of the port where food was delivered, hoping for handouts. Thousands of others coursed across the newly opened bridge that connects famished government-held areas to the markets of the former rebel-held territory around the port.
"We're still starving, dying of hunger. We're hoping to work for food," said Joseph Sahn, 29. "I'm completely broke. Nothing in my pockets," he said, shaking the sides of his tattered trousers.
Rebels ceded control of the port Thursday to West African peace troops backed by U.S. Marines, ending a rebel siege of President Charles Taylor's (search) government that killed hundreds and left residents in government-held areas with little to eat but flower leaves and snails. The rebels withdrew after Taylor resigned and left for Nigeria on Monday.
Humanitarian workers are returning to the city after largely vacating Monrovia (search) during the siege, and the first aid ship docked Friday. Aid workers distributed small amounts of aid Saturday, handing out sacks of cornmeal to families at a church and elsewhere in the city.
At the airport, planes landed food and other aid, including a U.N. Children's Fund (search) shipment of high-energy biscuits and milk for malnourished children, spokeswoman Margherita Amodeo said.
Amodeo said it would be some time before aid workers can travel out of Monrovia to reach 1 million to 2 million needy in Liberia's interior, where fighting continues between rebels and fighters of the embattled government.
"We can only reach a small part of the population and in this area, the needs are very high," said Amodeo. "We need to bring in as much as possible."
Two U.N. planes also unloaded about 110 Nigerian peacekeepers. That means nearly 1,000 members of a planned 3,250-strong West African peacekeeping force (search) have been deployed.
About 200 U.S. Marines are billeted at the airport to back up the force if necessary.
On Saturday, rebel and government forces battled near Gbargna (search) in central Liberia and in the northern and eastern borderlands with Guinea and Ivory Coast, said top Liberian Gen. Benjamin Yeaten.
The chief of staff of the peace force, Col. Theophilus Tawiah of Ghana, said he would contact rebel leaders for confirmation of a violation of a June 17 cease-fire agreement that has been all but ignored.
Guns have been largely silent in Monrovia since the Nigerian peacekeepers arrived in the city nearly two weeks ago, and negotiators pushed for a final peace deal in Accra, Ghana.
Mediators gave Liberia's leading rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, until midnight Saturday to drop demands for the vice-chairmanship of a planned interim government.
The two main rebel groups and the government had agreed to stay out of top posts in the power-sharing administration, meant to govern Liberia for two years during elections.
If the LURD movement refuses to yield, mediators said, they will adjourn the talks for at least a month.
Liberia's new president, Moses Blah, returned to Monrovia on Saturday without the accord being signed. If talks fail, full-scale fighting could continue.
At the seaport, a second U.N. boat landed overnight carrying soap, blankets, plastic sheeting, cutlery and jerrycans for water.
A handful of U.S. Marines patrolled the port Saturday while U.S. military helicopters buzzed overhead.
"We've received nothing but a positive reaction," said Capt. Michael Charney of Elmhurst, Ill., one of those patrolling. "People smile and wave and yell, 'Hi, Marine."'
At the College of West Africa refugee camp, residents clamored to be fed, saying only 1,000 of 3,816 had received food during Friday's first aid disbursement in weeks.
"For now, we're severely traumatized and we need the international community to help us," said the camp's 36-year-old administrator, George Ville. "The United Nations needs to take over the country, because all we know is war."
Taylor launched Liberia into 14 years of conflict in 1989, when he led a small insurgent group bent on toppling then-President Samuel Doe.
Taylor is still evading an international arrest warrant by a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone for aiding that country's brutal rebels, known for chopping off the limbs of civilians.
In Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah said on national radio that his government "would go after the money" and sue for compensation for the impoverished from Taylor's frozen Swiss account, which Kabbah estimated at $3 billion.