West African peacekeepers and American diplomats entered Liberia's cut-off second-largest city Friday for the first time since a peace deal, greeted by ragged refugees who lined the road to applaud and cheer.

U.S. Ambassador John Blaney stepped from his car to present a dog-eared copy of Liberia's Aug. 18 truce to armed rebels holding the city.

"I'm not your father, but I'm Uncle Sam — and you need an uncle, right?" Blaney told the rebel commander who took the copy. "The United States is here."

"I think you have a very good deal," Blaney added, speaking of the accord.

Buchanan, (search) Liberia's second-most vital port after the capital, had been reportedly mired in fighting even after West African troops helped bring calm to Monrovia (search).

The 20-25 vehicle convoy of West African armored vehicles, jeeps and civilian four-by-fours was the first official delegation to make it to the city.

Civilians lined the road to applaud and shout, "Thank you."

At a palm-tree lined, crumbling Catholic school, a crowd estimated by refugees and authorities at 8,000 still was taking shelter at the compound, as they had for weeks.

"We live here very bad. We have no food. We're getting food only by hardship," said one refugee at the Catholic compound Aliou Soh, 23.

Like other civilians, he was gaunt. Only rebel fighters, still out in the streets in force, appeared well-fed.

Blaney and the West Africans returned to Monrovia with a European who they said had been caught behind rebel lines, and had taken refuge at the church compound.

Aid workers and refugees had reported heavy combat even since the peace deal at Buchanan. Refugees at the church compound confirmed "bad" fighting, but said they had fled to the church July 28 and had no idea of the overall death toll.

Rebels appeared to be about six miles closer to Monrovia than the agreed-upon cease-fire deal.

But while insurgents appeared firm in holding the city against government troops, they insisted they, too, wanted the war over.

"We want peace. We're ready for peace," said rebel fighter Annie Cooper, with cowboy hat and AK-47. She worried for her four children, on the other side of the front line, in Monrovia.

"We're ready to cooperate with anyone. Any hour, any minute," Cooper said.

Meanwhile, at Liberia's main airport, between Monrovia and Buchanan, a total of 250 peacekeeping troops arrived Friday and late Thursday from Mali, making that country the second African nation to put troops on the ground.

About 1,500 Nigerian forces have already been deployed. Ghana, Senegal and South Africa are among the others promising troops. West African leaders have pledged a 3,250-strong force, pending arrival of a U.N. peace force, its size still undetermined, in coming months.

Rebels signed a peace deal Aug. 18 after the Aug. 11 resignation and departure of President Charles Taylor (search), now exiled to Nigeria.

Taylor, himself a former rebel, plunged Liberia into 14 years of civil war and rebellions starting in 1989. He also is indicted for U.N. war crimes for backing a brutal civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone.