Hundreds of war-weary Liberians welcomed the west African troops on Monday as they arrived outside Monrovia, lifting hopes for an end to the country's latest bout of bloodletting. 

The troops disembarked from UN transport helicopters at Robertsfield Airport, outside the besieged capital Monrovia.

As choppers continued ferrying the troops in, an advance party took up defensive positions around the airport, which is to become the key entrance point for humanitarian aid and further troops.

Sporadic fighting

In the city itself, sporadic gunfire still rang out around the bridges on Monday between President Charles Taylor's loyalist forces and the rebels of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD).

But there was no sign of the pitched battles of recent days, and both fighters and civilians expressed hope the arrival of the peacekeepers would mark an end to Liberia's four-year civil war.

The arrival of the troops was followed by that of Nigerian Foreign Minister Olu Adeniji who carried a personal message from his government to Taylor.

"I just came to assure him that troops have started deploying," Adeniji said after emerging from Taylor's private residence in central Monrovia.

Taylor "expressed the hope that this will stop the shelling of innocent civilians," added Adeniji.

Charles Taylor has been offered
asylum in Nigeria

Asylum offer

Nigeria, west Africa's economic and military giant, has offered Taylor asylum.

In return, the Liberian president has promised to step down from power on 11 August.

Meanwhile, at a news conference in Rome, LURD rebel leader Sekou Damate Conneh said his forces would leave Monrovia as soon as the peace-force is in place.

"We are prepared to receive the peacekeepers in Liberia as soon as they deploy in the city and the port to save the civilians there. We are prepared to withdraw immediately," Conneh said.

LURD, along with a splinter rebel faction, now controls around four-fifths of the country, an impoverished land of bush, swamp and tropical forest on Africa's Atlantic shore.

West African peace-force

But they have proved unable to capture the capital, Monrovia, which is now teeming with around 200,000 refugees, desperate for food and clean water.

The advance Nigerian peacekeeping force includes 18 officers, led by Nigerian General Festus Okonkwo.

Additional deployments over the coming days will bring the initial deployment to 1500.

The mission has been set up by west African countries but has some international financial backing.

It also received last week a tough UN mandate to stabilise the country.