Rebels hand over Liberian port
U.S. Marines copter into Monrovia's airport
MONROVIA, Liberia (CNN) -- Liberian rebels have officially handed over the capital's looting-ravaged port to a Nigerian-led peacekeeping force after 200 U.S. troops arrived to support the operation.
At noon Thursday, members of the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) handed over Monrovia's port area to the leader of the mainly Nigerian ECOMIL peace force, Brig. Gen Festus Okonkwo.
The handover came during a short ceremony attended by the U.S. ambassador and the leading rebel in the city.
"We have no reason to doubt the credibility of the Americans, and we have no reason to doubt the credibility of the peacekeepers, so we will leave as we have said. I'm leaving right now," said rebel commander Sekou Fofana.
"We are committed to the peace process," he said after the ceremony, held on a nearby bridge.
The U.S. troops arrived in nine helicopters. They will assist Nigerian peacekeepers and help stabilize the situation to make way for humanitarian aid, Pentagon officials said. (Gallery: U.S. Marines arrive at airport)
The U.S. contingent includes a "quick reaction force" of about 150 Marines who will assist the Nigerian-led peacekeeping group should they "get in trouble."
About two dozen communications and engineering specialists will assess the port, and a team of 10-12 Navy SEALS will clear the port to make way for humanitarian aid, Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN in Washington.
CNN's Jeff Koinange at Monrovia's airport said Liberians believe that with West African peacekeepers on the ground and Americans in support, "peace is literally just around the corner."
U.S. Ambassador John Blaney told Koinange he was "very proud" U.S. troops were in Liberia. He said they would play a "major support role" with the West African peacekeepers.
"We are going to get the free port open and get assistance to hundreds of thousands of people who are suffering," he said.
The U.S. reaction force is expected to be in place for only a few days until a second battalion of Nigerian peacekeepers arrives later this week. "At that point, the reaction force will depart," Schwartz said.
More than 700 Nigerian peacekeepers are currently in the war-torn country, and about 100 U.S. Marines were already there mostly to provide security at the U.S. Embassy in the capital.
Tens of thousands of Liberians began looting the Monrovia port area Wednesday, carrying off anything they could find.
CNN's Koinange said looters took vehicles, furniture, electrical appliances, food and gasoline -- and had "literally stripped the port dry." (On the Scene: Jeff Koinange)
The looters moved in after the LURD rebels began packing up.
Koinange reported that Liberia's new president, Moses Blah, who took over Monday when ex-president Charles Taylor flew into exile, was heading to Ghana Thursday to talk to LURD leaders.
U.S. President George W. Bush Wednesday told reporters at his Crawford, Texas, ranch that his focus is on "making sure that humanitarian relief gets to the people who are suffering in Liberia."
"One place we got to make sure is secure and open is the port, and so we're working with ECOMIL," Bush said, referring to the peacekeepers from the Economic Community of West African States.
On Wednesday, a U.N. official said U.N. workers could begin distributing food and relief supplies in the next couple of days.
"With the good news of the port opening, we hope to get food distribution going in a couple of days, but there's so many other issues to address, particularly the state of health of people and a lot of people affected by the war," said U.N. Deputy Relief Coordinator Carolyn McAskie.
A ship loaded with food and supplies is docked in neighboring Sierra Leone, awaiting word that Monrovia's port has been reopened.
"You're looking at a population that is extremely distressed," said McAskie, part of an 11-member senior U.N. team that arrived Tuesday in Monrovia to restart relief efforts.
The port is Monrovia's chief entry point for desperately needed humanitarian aid, which came to a quick halt in June as the rebels launched fresh attacks against Taylor's government and aid workers fled.
Fourteen years of civil war has created a massive humanitarian crisis, with 1.3 million of the country's 3.2 million population being uprooted from their homes. More than 250,000 people, half of them civilians, were killed in the war, according to U.N. figures.
-- CNN correspondents Jeff Koinange and Gaven Morris contributed to this report.