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Liberians breach barrier to reunite their capital

MONROVIA, LIBERIA — MONROVIA, Liberia - Tens of thousands of Liberians burst through a barricade at dawn yesterday, pouring over the bridge that had separated warring government and rebel forces, reuniting a broken city as the first relief shipments in weeks arrived by sea and air.

Searching for food, friends and family after a brutal 70-day siege, the civilians flowed in a great river of humanity that grew all morning.

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They pushed past a simple barrier of barbed wire that had been dropped by a helicopter Thursday and maintained overnight by four weary Nigeria peacekeeping soldiers. Many carried bedding or a few belongings.

"We are going to try to pull our lives together again," said Emmanuel Zeoger, 27, who was returning to try to reopen his tiny shop.

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Hundreds of rebels withdrew from the area Thursday, and as the news spread yesterday morning, Monrovians who had been trapped by shelling and gunfire walked freely over the bridge for the first time in weeks.

All were survivors of a series of brutal battles, now known here as World War I, World War II and World War III, that gripped Monrovia throughout June, July and early August - the culmination of 14 years of fighting led in large part by the president, Charles Taylor, a former warlord who stepped down and left the country Monday.

Abu Jalloh, 38, a native of Guinea who has lived in Liberia for 20 years, said he had spent two weeks cringing in a corner of his home near the bridge, waiting out World War III.

Marines welcomed

Like many people on the street yesterday, he applauded the arrival of U.S. Marines on Thursday, a force whose presence changed the political climate overnight.

"Thank Allah for America," Jalloh said.

Down the road, at Monrovia's sole port, where aid offices and warehouses have been looted and stripped bare of more than 9,000 tons of food, the first ship to arrive in more than a month tied up at the dock shortly before 8 a.m.

The port was guarded by West African forces and about 40 U.S. Marines, holding a razor-wire perimeter.

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"We're glad to be here, glad to be of help," said one Marine arriving at the port in a Humvee.

The ship was the Seabulk Martin, 10 days out of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and carrying the first relief shipment to Liberia since June. It carried a floating United Nations World Food Program office with a handful of staff members, including Hans Vikoler, 43, a strapping Italian.

"Our trucks were looted," he said. "Our offices are gone. Today we begin again."

Jacques Klein, a former U.S. Air Force major general who is the special representative in Liberia for the U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan, met the ship yesterday afternoon, wearing a bomber jacket and smoking a Cuban cigar.

"We've got to give the populace some hope that there is a better future," he said. "We've got to get out to the countryside. There are people out there who are desperate."

Fear of more chaos

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There was fear on the street yesterday that the chaos could return.

The leader of the main rebel group, Sekou Damate Conneh, and Liberian security officials have demanded that all parties drop their weapons. But there were signs yesterday that peace might be tenuous; every Liberian cease-fire in the past 14 years has been broken.

"We have many concerns," said Steve Flahn-Paye, 38, leader of a newly formed neighborhood watch group at the port. "We see many irregular government forces here among us today.

"They are not being paid, and they have weapons. We did not sleep last night."

Outside the port, on the road from the bridge, Isaiah Doe, 24, from a small village in Sinoe province, 120 miles southeast of the capital, said: "I left my home under a rebel attack, and I was caught up in another war here. Someday I would like to go home.

"We are all, all of us, paralyzed by war. It will take years to erase the memory."


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