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Hungry Liberians smash barricades

New Bridge, Monrovia
Tens of thousands of Liberians had gathered at the New Bridge trying to get to the port.

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MONROVIA, Liberia (CNN) -- Tens of thousands of starving Liberians have been breaking through barricades in Monrovia in search of food and familes after rebels relaxed their grip on the capital.

Meanwhile Friday the first ship carrying food aid to Liberia's capital after weeks of fighting docked and aid workers are preparing to feed thousands of famished people, the U.N. World Food Programme said.

"Along with emergency food rations for thousands of the most vulnerable people in Monrovia, the equipment on board will allow WFP to resume full-scale distributions far more rapidly," Justin Bagirishya, U.N. World Food Program (WFP) country director, said in a statement.

The first two ships docked carrying high-energy biscuits and other supplies from the WFP and refugee agency UNHCR, but damaged equipment hindered unloading. A U.S. plane brought more aid.

Three other U.N. ships are due next week, U.N. officials said, the first due from Freetown, Sierra Leone early next week. The next three ships were described as larger vessels that will be loaded with tons of food.

However, security in Monrovia is still poor and government and rebel forces accused each other Friday of attacking outside the city, Reuters reported.

Rebels seized most of Monrovia's food supplies at the port nearly a month ago when they launched the last of a series of three attacks into the city. At least 2,000 people died in the fighting and hundreds of thousands fled their homes.

The rebels of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) released their month-long grip on Monrovia on Thursday and started pulling back to the outskirts, allowing West African peacekeepers, backed up by U.S. Marines, to move in.

The rebels had been fighting the government of Charles Taylor, a former warlord blamed for 14 years of turmoil. On Monday, Taylor stepped down and went into exile in Nigeria, opening the way for the rebel withdrawal and the arrival of peacekeepers.

Earlier Friday tens of thousands of civilians broke through barricades on Monrovia's front-line bridges Friday to get to the port area. Food looted from the port is now on sale cheap on what was the rebel side of the front line.

The West African peacekeepers, trying to control the chaos and looting, had planned to reopen the bridges later Friday.

But by early morning massive throngs had rushed the bridges and overrun the razor-wire barricades.

"Nobody opened the bridge. They just overpowered us," Private Moses Peter of Nigeria told The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, the U.N. refugee agency has an emergency team on the ground in Monrovia, where it is attempting to "reestablish an operational presence."

"We are currently registering Sierra Leone refugees who wish to leave Liberia by boat," the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement. The UNHCR office compound in Monrovia is filled with Sierra Leoneans "living in dire conditions."

Also, the agency is preparing for a "larger scale relief operation to help up to 300,000 people uprooted by the civil war."

The effort to mount a relief operation is impeded "not only by a fragile security situation but also by lack of fuel, trucks and other aid supplies." The agency has only three trucks and it will take five to seven days to get others to the capital.

Washington has stressed that the U.S. role -- currently 200 troops, including 150 Marines to back up the West African peacekeepers --would focus mostly on humanitarian assistance.

Nigeria, West Africa's foremost military power, started flying in a second battalion of 700-800 men on Thursday. The African force is expected to grow to about 3,250 soldiers.

-- CNN's Gaven Morris and Jeff Koinange contributed to this report

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