MONROVIA, Liberia – Two helicopters carrying the first peacekeepers to war-battered Liberia (search) took off from neighboring Sierra Leone on Monday, as the team's leader sought to temper high expectations among the country's suffering people.
Each helicopter flew away from Hastings airfield with 20 Nigerian soldiers in camouflage -- watched by more than 600 other troops to follow. West African leaders have promised a 3,250-man force to quell fighting in Liberia.
"I wish you God speed and well in this historic mission to Liberia," said Allan Doss, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's representative in Sierra Leone (search).
"The people of Liberia have suffered a lot, for too long. They need your help," he said.
In Liberia's capital, eager residents bought white T-shirts and gathered white cloths to wave in greeting when the peacekeepers arrive. They have endured two months of rebel sieges that have claimed more than 1,000 lives and cut off most food and clean water.
The peacekeeping force's commander, Nigerian Brig. Gen. Festus Okonkwo, sought to lower the high expectations, saying the first troops would only secure the airport on the capital's outskirts.
"We are going in with as much troops as possible," Okonkwo told reporters late Sunday in neighboring Sierra Leone. "We know that the situation is bad in and around Monrovia."
The airport the soldiers will secure is about a 45-minute drive on a government-held road from the capital, where fighting has raged daily between President Charles Taylor (search)'s fighters and rebels battling to overthrow him.
Okonkwo said he has asked both sides to return to the positions they held when they signed a June 17 cease-fire, which has been broken repeatedly since then. He said he didn't expect the peacekeepers to be attacked.
Debt-strapped Nigeria, which is overseeing the deployment, says it needs far more international backing for the mission, expected to eventually cost at least $2 million daily.
Two of three U.S. warships full of Marines arrived off the country's Atlantic Ocean coast, waiting to support the peacekeepers. It was unclear whether the U.S. Marines will ever go ashore.
Taylor, a former warlord, pledged Saturday to cede power on Aug. 11 -- meeting one demand by fellow African leaders and the United States. His government also said he would leave Liberia only when enough peacekeepers are on the ground, and when a war-crimes indictment against him is dropped.
But on Sunday, his camp hedged on the promises, which include going into exile in Nigeria. Officials said his agreement to yield power should be enough.
"The international community should give him a break. He's made the ultimate sacrifice" by handing over power, Information Minister Reginald Goodrich told The Associated Press. "No one should ask him to do more than that."
Taylor has promised to yield power since June 4, when a joint United Nations and Sierra Leone court revealed the war-crimes indictment against him for supporting rebels there.
Taylor is blamed for 14 years of conflict in Liberia that has killed more than 100,000 people, and is accused of trafficking and arming insurgents across the region.
Taylor has repeatedly made and broken cease-fires, peace accords and power-sharing deals in the 1990s. He has even attacked past West African deployments.
U.N. prosecutors are adamant that Taylor must face justice, heightening prospects of a standoff with the international peacekeepers and foreign powers.
The U.N. Security Council endorsed the deployment of the multinational force to Liberia on Friday. The deployment is to last two months, and be followed by U.N. peacekeepers in October.
The Bush administration has insisted that West African peacekeepers run the mission, despite calls from Liberians and leaders from around world that U.S. forces take the lead. The United States oversaw Liberia's 19th century founding by freed American slaves, and the two countries remained commercial and strategic allies until the end of the Cold War.
Intermittent automatic weapon fire and explosions could be heard Sunday in Monrovia, sending people sprinting across streets as they scouted out food and water.
Defense Minister Daniel Chea reported heavy fighting Sunday in Buchanan, Liberia's second city, where he said government fighters were trying to "push the rebel scumbags out."
Liberian Gen. Benjamin Yeaten claimed rebel mortars had hit a hospital in fighting at the northern town of Gbarnga, killing an unknown number of patients.
Yeaten also reported fighting in the eastern towns of Tappeta and Beatuo near the border with Ivory Coast.