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Hungry Liberians storm port

A man begs for mercy from a rebel soldier confronting him for attempting to loot gasoline from the rebel-controlled port in Monrovia.

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Liberian civilians strip Monrovia's port warehouses bare
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Interactive: The U.S. and Liberia
Profile: Charles Taylor
Fact Sheet: Liberia
• 56 years old
• Mechanic by trade
• Trained in Libya during late 1980s
• Helped launch uprising against President Samuel Doe
• In 1989-96 civil war, served as inspector general in charge of discipline -- reputedly a euphemism for executions.
• Arrested last month for 10 days on charges of conspiring with Americans to overthrow Taylor
Source: The Associated Press
Will Charles Taylor's departure make a difference to peace and security in Liberia?

MONROVIA, Liberia (CNN) -- Thousands of hungry Liberians stormed Monrovia's port in a massive looting spree Wednesday as rebel fighters prepared to hand it over to West African peacekeepers.

"They are taking whatever they can -- vehicles, furniture, electrical appliances, food. It is an unbelievable scene. They are literally stripping the port dry," CNN's Jeff Koinange reported from the scene.

He said some looters were running away carrying on their heads heavy sacks of aid agency food "literally under the gaze of the LURD rebels."

The LURD rebels have promised to pull out of the port noon Thursday to allow food shipments to hundreds of thousands of hungry civilians in a city where recent fighting left 2,000 dead.

LURD, or Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, is the main rebel group that has been fighting for the past three years to oust Charles Taylor from the presidency.

Taylor's departure into exile in Nigeria earlier this week raised hopes for peace in the country, which has seen almost continuous civil war since 1989. Taylor himself emerged as leader in 1996 following seven years of war that left an estimated 200,000 people dead.

More than 200 U.S. troops are to move ashore in the coming days to assist Nigerian peacekeepers and to help stabilize the situation, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

The troops will include a "quick reaction force" of about 150 Marines that will assist the Economic Community of West African States' peacekeeping group, known as ECOMIL, should they "get in trouble."

"This will be a narrow mission in the sense that the objective will be to stabilize a situation where ECOMIL feels that it's not within their control. And once stabilized, the ECOMIL forces will continue with their mission," said Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Two dozen communications and engineering specialists will assess the port and a team of 10 to 12 Navy SEALs will clear the port to make way for humanitarian aid.

Schwartz said U.S. forces also would help facilitate movement of the Nigerian peacekeepers from the airport to the port. Helicopters and other aircraft such as Harrier fighters will provide aerial support.

More than 700 Nigerian peacekeepers are already patrolling Monrovia. About 100 U.S. Marines are in the capital mostly to provide security at the U.S. Embassy.

President Bush told reporters at his Crawford, Texas, ranch that his focus is on "making sure 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.

Liberian President Moses Blah, who replaced Taylor, said fighter planes from a U.S. task force offshore would soon start patrols. U.S. Cobra helicopters circled over the port area Wednesday but made no attempt to land.

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.

Many of the warehouses containing food were being looted. Fights broke out as looters fought one another for bags of rice, beans and flour, many of them marked "Made in the USA."

"They are hungry. We can't stop them taking food that was brought for them and not distributed. We are going tomorrow. We are packing little by little," rebel official Sekou Fofana told Reuters.

Earlier, a U.N. official said U.N. workers could begin distributing food and relief supplies in the next couple of days if rebels pull back from Monrovia's main port as promised.

"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.

Liberians loot food supplies from the rebel-held port area.
Liberians loot food supplies from the rebel-held port area.

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.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative was expected to arrive Wednesday to begin setting up a "major U.N. mission" similar to its Sierra Leone operation, McAskie said.

"We're looking at a minimum of two years because you have to replace the whole government structures, the public utilities and in fact ... rebuild the social fabric of the country," she said.

"We definitely need more action. ... There's very little trust amongst people here and they're very tired of war and they're very afraid," she said. "It's still very volatile."

CNN correspondents Jeff Koinange and Gaven Morris contributed to this report.

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