MONROVIA, Liberia - U.S. soldiers sent to assess the nation's humanitarian needs met cheering, dancing mobs everywhere they went yesterday and listened to the cries of people declaring the demise of embattled President Charles Taylor. At one point, though, they had to turn back because a government official was upset that protocol had not been followed.
Tens of thousands of Liberians poured into the streets as the U.S. convoy drove through town. Bare-chested boys, toothless old men and women with babies strapped to their backs ran alongside, laughing and chanting, "We want peace." The more audacious declared that their president's wings had been broken.
They sang paeans to President Bush, but in the high-speed Liberian pidgin spoken here, it sounded something like "Jaw Boo," as in: "Oh, George Bush, we like you. Oh, George Bush."
"Americans are just not used to being received this way," said one member of the assessment team.
At noon, with the sun blasting over the crowd and the U.S. convoy barely able to crawl in the crush of well-wishers in the streets, Taylor's police forces appeared from nowhere and fired into the air. Three uniformed U.S. soldiers stepped out of the first car, their guns aimed ahead. Taylor's forces fired into the air again and the Americans piled into their cars and sped off. More Liberian government forces arrived and chased away the crowd, one commander yelling, "Beat them."
The Liberian defense minister, Daniel Chea, said yesterday afternoon that the crowd was fired on for the American team's protection. The U.S. Embassy, in a statement yesterday afternoon, called the shooting unnecessary.
For his part, Bush, on his first visit to the continent, announced yesterday morning in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, that he had not yet made a decision about whether to send U.S. troops to assist with peacekeeping efforts in this West African country, which has been ravaged by war.
The team of 32 U.S. experts, all but one of them soldiers, was sent by the White House to gauge what embassy officials here described as the scope of the humanitarian crisis. The experts said they had not come to lay the groundwork for a military deployment.
The finer details of their mission seemed to be lost here. The enthusiasm on the streets yesterday was the latest signal of how badly people in the capital want U.S. intervention to stop the war in their country. "Oh, Marine, we like you, oh!" boys chanted, running alongside the convoy.
"We are tired of war, we are tired of war," a man pushing a wheelbarrow shouted from the side of the road. A group of girls sang, "No more looting, no more stealing."
Nor were people afraid to speak their mind about their government. "Charles Taylor wing break," began one chant. "George Bush wake up." "Taylor take money, he buy AK," came another, apparently speaking about AK-47 assault rifles.
Taylor has said he will step aside, temporarily, once an international force arrives. Bush has called his departure a necessary "first step" for any U.S. engagement in Liberia.
At least one senior member of Taylor's regime was less than pleased with the Americans' cruise through the capital. Chea, the defense minister, was miffed that the assessment team had scheduled a visit to a refugee camp on the outskirts of the capital without first paying him a courtesy call.
So, early in its outing, the convoy was forced to make a U-turn at a checkpoint across the strategic St. Paul River, manned by the feared government militia group that calls itself the Wild Geese. The convoy came back to meet with Chea, but not before picking up a 6-year-old child who was slightly injured in the chaos on the streets.
Chea said yesterday afternoon that the Americans were neither stopped nor assaulted at the checkpoint, but that it was an oversight on their part not to have met with him. He took pains to point out that the U.S. assessment team was welcome and asked the United States to intervene in Liberia.
"I think America has a mortal responsibility to this country," he said. "That marriage that America shied away from some 100 years ago, I think we have an opportunity to consummate that marriage."