In Liberia: old script, new end?

1,500 African peacekeepers begin arriving Monday, echoing a previous mission.

It's August in Monrovia. Rebels are advancing on the capital city from the north, demanding that Liberia's leader step down. Fierce fighting in the capital has killed hundreds, and trapped thousands in their homes. Under pressure to intervene, a US president sends troops to the West African coast. But it's the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that sends in peacekeepers first.

That was 1990.

Liberians must be forgiven if they sense a déjà vu quality to their impending rescue this week - and if they feel a certain wariness. Several hundred Nigerian soldiers are expected to land Monday, the first contingent of an expected 1,500-strong "vanguard force." Three US ships with 2,200 marines were expected offshore Sunday. And President Charles Taylor has pledged to step down by Aug. 11. But most Liberians still remember the last time around: The US troops never arrived and it took seven years to restore a semblance of order.

One important factor has changed, however. Liberians say that this intervention has a better chance, because all the warring parties have agreed to support the peacekeepers.

For a few hours Friday morning, Monrovia was quiet while a 10-man advance team from ECOWAS toured the city in preparation for the Nigerian peacekeepers. The challenge for ECOWAS and the international community will be to ensure that this time, Liberians will not have to wait seven long years for peace.

"There's a different feeling today," says the Rev. Weh Weah Bitieh, standing outside George Patten United Methodist Church, after more than a week of flying bullets and crashing mortar shells. A woman stirs a pot of gruel. Two men shovel garbage, and a half dozen children chase each other over fallen trees and rubble. A moment of relative normalcy for the 600 refugees. "The arrival of the ECOWAS observer team has given people hope and courage."

On Saturday, after a meeting with ECOWAS leaders, an embattled Charles Taylor pledged to leave power. But he failed to set a date for his departure from the country, which the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) have set as a requirement for peace.

The events that followed the deployment of ECOWAS peacekeepers in late August 1990, however, are fresh in everyone's minds as the Nigerians prepare to land Monday. Because although most Liberians say their arrival helped stabilize the situation, it took seven years before conditions were calm enough for an election to be held.

In the meantime, Liberia's leader, Samuel Doe, met a grisly death at rebel hands, and ECOWAS troops were sucked into the conflict and became combatants. Several cease-fires and transitional governments failed, while armed groups multiplied.

No one here, least of all the West Africans who left Liberia only five years ago, wants such events to be repeated.

"It means we are involved in a vicious cycle," says Col. Theophilus Tawiah, the Ghanaian chief of staff of the ECOWAS mission in Liberia (ECOMIL) of the deployment of West African peacekeepers here so soon after their departure. This time, he assures, "things will be different and better."

Outside the Royal Hotel on Saturday, one of only two still functioning in the city, a crowd gathered to greet an ECOWAS delegation that had come to meet with Mr. Taylor and persuade him to step down. Among them was Jackie Smith, who waited for more than three hours to show the delegation that Liberians welcome the peacekeepers.

"This time around, with ECOMOG [the ECOWAS Monitoring Group] and the arrival of the peacekeepers, I don't think we will make the same mistakes that we made last time," he said. "The problem last time was that there were so many factions and not all the sides agreed to the peacekeepers' coming."

In theory, at least, the Liberian government, LURD, and a second rebel group moving toward Monrovia from the west called the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) all say they want the peacekeepers to come and restore stability, although the rebels say Taylor's departure from the country is a precondition for that support. Even government troops, many of whom have been fighting for Taylor for years, say they will respect the peacekeepers and any negotiated settlement.

"If Taylor leaves, there will still be a Liberia," says Gen. Edward Johnson, who controls government forces near the fiercely contested Old Bridge, where government and rebel troops have exchanged fire with guns and mortars for more than two weeks. "We are going to be loyal to whoever is in power," he added, before yelling angrily for his bodyguard. "Where my muscle man?"

International involvement may also play a key role in preventing ECOWAS troops from becoming mired in another long, drawn out conflict here.

West African troops were in Monrovia for three years before the United Nations agreed to help them with international peacekeepers, or "blue helmets." And many here say the West African commanders sent here had reasons for prolonging the war. Many made fortunes off the Liberians' suffering, buying things here cheap and selling them dear in their own countries.

On Friday, the United Nations Security Council authorized the deployment of peacekeepers to Liberia in October, although it is still uncertain what role the United States will play in the conflict here, despite the expected offshore arrival of Marines.

Back at the front line, where Friday's brief lull was shattered this weekend by more fighting, deployment of anyone - West Africans, Americans, or the UN - cannot come soon enough.

"If they do come," says Abraham Feika, a former soccer coach. "We'll all go out into the streets and jubilate."

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