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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

UN Peacekeepers Take Over in Liberia

MONROVIA, Liberia -- West African peacekeepers traded camouflage helmets for the blue headgear of UN forces Wednesday, inaugurating a new UN armed mission intended to secure lasting peace for Liberia, a nation in ruins after 14 years of conflict.

Soldiers in the 3,500-strong emergency West African force moved under the auspices of the UN mission Tuesday.

"It's a great day for us," said Colonel Theophilus Tawiah, the Ghanaian chief of staff for the West African intervention force. The Nigeria-led West African peace force, sent on Aug. 4, had succeeded in imposing a cease-fire in the capital, ending fighting that killed well over 1,000 civilians in the city.

The Aug. 11 resignation of warlord-president Charles Taylor followed, leading to an Aug. 18 power-sharing and peace deal between government and rebels.

The West African force has been too small to deploy nationwide, leaving the countryside still unsecured.

West African peacekeeping leaders have said they have done all they can with limited troops and funds.

The last of more than 100 U.S. Marines sent to help the West Africans departed late Tuesday. Their ship, the USS Iwo Jima, was no longer visible from Monrovia's shore by Tuesday afternoon; it was due to pull away completely from Liberia within hours.

The Iwo Jima was the last of three U.S. warships that had been deployed in early August off Liberia's capital, Monrovia, where fighting killed more than 1,000 civilians in June and July as rebels laid siege to the city.

West African troops said they have looked forward to being wrapped into the UN military force, to be led by Lieutenant General Daniel Opande of Kenya, now head of a UN mission in neighboring Sierra Leone.

"This for me is a promotion. I'm proud," said one young peacekeeper. "We came as African peacekeepers, but now we're wearing the blue helmets."

Liberians greeted the transition, but said much more was needed to revive the country -- once one of Africa's richest, now without functioning electrical systems or roads, with hundreds of thousands of civilians still living as refugees.

"Wearing blue helmets is not enough. We have been in darkness and suffering for too long," said 29-year old Boakai Bafalie, who called on the United States and the United Nations to help repair electrical grids and schools.

"We appreciate the soldiers in their outfits, but we need more than that," a roadside gas vendor said.

The overall head of the Liberia UN mission -- Jacques Klein, an American -- was expected to return to Liberia on Wednesday to oversee a hand-over ceremony.

Liberia descended into chaos in 1989 when Taylor, then a warlord, invaded Liberia from neighboring Ivory Coast. Following his seven-year insurgency that led to the deaths of more than 150,000 people, war-weary Liberians elected him president in 1997.

Insurgents took up arms against him in 1999 and marched on the capital in June.

The power-sharing government is scheduled to take over on Oct. 14, leading to elections a year later and a democratically elected government in early 2005.

Gunmen opened fire Wednesday near a motorcade carrying Liberia's rebel leader into the capital for the first time, sparking heavy firing in crowded neighborhoods with AK-47s and rocket-launchers.

Journalists saw two dead, and witnesses reported more casualties in the conflict, which sent thousands fleeing an eastern Monrovia commercial district.

There was no word of any injury to Sekou Conneh, top leader of Liberia's triumphant rebel movement. Conneh was being escorted by West African peacekeepers to a meeting with new Liberian President Moses Blah.