MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) -- Aid workers fed thousands of starving children Monday with the first donated food to reach their city in seven months, after fighting among Liberia's rival militias cut off supplies.
Relief officials entered the city of Tubmanburg on Saturday for the first time since February. They found children so malnourished that flesh was falling from their feet. About 15 people were dying each day.
''The people have been prisoners of the town,'' said Nicolas Detorrente of the French relief agency Doctors Without Borders. ''They haven't been able to get out to forage for food because of the fighting.''
Aid workers determined that at least 60 percent of the 35,000 residents in Tubmanburg, 50 miles north of the capital Monrovia, were suffering from severe malnutrition. The city's hospital was looted and abandoned during the latest round of rebel clashes in April.
Detorrente said his agency and Action Against Hunger delivered food rations to 4,000 children in the city on Monday. He said 82 percent of children 5 and under were malnourished, and that at least 45 percent of them had kwashiorkor, a severe form of malnutrition that causes stunted growth and edema.
''These are truly staggering rates and surely means that a lot of children have already died,'' Detorrente said. He said about 100 of the most serious cases were taken to hospitals in Monrovia.
The U.N. World Food Program will provide another 74 tons of food on Tuesday, enough to feed 10,000 people for the next two weeks.
''One old woman could not even make it to the distribution center,'' said Dipson Tulay, a U.N. food aid monitor who accompanied the first trucks into Tubmanburg on Monday. ''She dropped to the ground and died before our own eyes, just two yards from the distribution center.''
Some residents told aid workers they had fled to the jungle to live off leaves, wild yams and palms, Tulay said.
World Food Program workers said they feared they would find similar scenes of starvation when they reached other parts of the country isolated by the civil war.
In a breakthrough in the fighting, one of the leading rebel factions has demobilized 1,500 of its fighters in northern Liberia, vowing total disarmament by the end of the month.
''We are not soldiers by profession,'' Alhaji Kromah, leader of the Ulimo-K rebel faction, said in a prepared statement read to troops at headquarters in Voinjama on the northern border with Guinea.
''We took up arms a few years back out of frustration to emancipate ourselves and our people, and we feel that this aim has been accomplished.''
Kromah's militia has been at the forefront of the nearly 7-year civil war launched by rebel leader Charles Taylor. The war, waged along mainly ethnic lines, has killed more than 150,000 people and left half of this West African country's 2.6 million people homeless.
A peace accord signed in August 1995 kept the country calm until a standoff developed in April between Taylor and Roosevelt Johnson. The fighting -- the capital's bloodiest showdown since the war began -- killed more than 1,500 people and prompted the U.S. military to evacuate more than 2,000 foreigners.
A new peace accord reached last month called for disarmament by the end of the year and elections next May.
Ulimo-K surrendered heavy weapons and ammunition to the West African peacekeeping forces, known as ECOMOG, over the weekend. The gear included bazookas, land mines, anti-aircraft missiles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and Chinese- and American-made machine guns.
=A9 Copyright 1996 The Associated Press