MONROVIA, Liberia – West African peacekeepers (search) backed by U.S. Marines worked Tuesday to help Liberia's new peace deal take hold, although fresh clashes between government and rebel fighters were reported in the countryside.
West African forces and a few Marines patrolled new front lines outside Monrovia (search), surveying dope-smoking rebel fighters clad in rain-matted women's wigs at the insurgents' checkpoint on the Po River, about six miles outside the capital.
Overlooking the Po, U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Eric Gordon, of Union, Ky., declined a rebel commander's invitation to advance past the beer bottle-strewn area and go deeper into rebel territory beyond the river.
"Thanks. I think this is as far as we'll go," Gordon, among five Marines, told the commander.
At Liberia's international airport, a base for about 150 U.S. Marines supporting the peacekeepers, Marines and Nigerian soldiers drilled with arms ready to jointly repel any attack.
Combatants upheld a cease-fire in Monrovia after Monday's signing of a landmark power-sharing deal meant to lift once-prosperous Liberia out of 14 years of ruinous conflict by warlords and militias vying for power. Charles Taylor (search), who launched Liberia into bloodshed with a 1989 insurgency, stepped down as president Aug. 11 after a three-year battle against rebels and flew into exile in Nigeria.
"Peacekeepers must be fair and straight. If not, of course, we expect a collapse," rebel official Mohammed Sheriff said, grumbling at peacekeepers' slowness in demobilizing government fighters within town.
"People do things from past experience. Other times we talked of peace, and then other things happened."
The accord -- signed in Accra, Ghana, after 2 months of talks repeatedly sidelined by new fighting -- commits Liberia to a two-year transition government, with the two rebel movements and the government all waiving top leadership posts within it.
Liberia's political parties and civil groups began implementing the first part of the deal Tuesday, choosing candidates for the top interim posts of chairman and vice chairman.
The names will be submitted to the rebel movements and the government of current President Moses Blah for final selection, with the two leaders of Liberia's interim administration due to be selected by Wednesday, said Sunny Ugoh, a spokesman for the West African regional bloc mediating the Ghana talks.
Past Liberian peace accords, including those with power-sharing pacts, all have collapsed.
Hopes of a real peace this time have been bolstered by Taylor's departure, the steadily building West African peace force and promises of a U.N. force to follow.
On Tuesday, Monrovia's Catholic-run Radio Veritas played gospel songs celebrating peace. The station recently resumed broadcasting after fuel shortages during 10 weeks of rebel sieges shut down transmitters in the city.
News of the peace deal was slow to reach Monrovia's people. But when it did, it brought relief.
"It means Liberia is moving forward," said Anthony Leesa, a 32-year-old refugee in Monrovia whose business in northern Gbarnga was destroyed by fighting. "It may stop the suffering of the Liberian people."
Leesa and other Liberians pinned their hopes on peacekeepers, hoping they soon would spread out beyond Monrovia and disarm ragtag, ill-disciplined fighters on both sides -- many of them boys.
"They need to demobilize the fighters and make them know they're part of this society," Leesa said. "Then they won't destroy our lives and property."
In Monrovia, Defense Minister Daniel Chea claimed fighting was persisting in the countryside, near Gbarnga. The clashes started with rebel offensives around the town before the accord was signed, he said.
"Fighting is going on at those locations at this very moment," Chea said.
Government defense officials asked Blah, Taylor's former vice president who will hand power to the interim government in October, to formally complain to peacekeepers, Chea said.
Peacekeepers largely have stayed within the capital and the few miles just outside it, staying close as their force builds toward its promised 3,250 members.
The force commander, Brig. Gen. Festus Okonkwo, said he expected the second of two Nigerian battalions to be fully deployed this week, increasing the force to about 1,500.
The first troops from Mali, Ghana and Senegal also will be arriving by week's end, Okonkwo said.
The peace force expects to move next into the embattled southeastern port city of Buchanan, and into central towns, Okonkwo said.