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US Military Team Arrives in Liberia

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U.S. Military Team Arrives in Liberia



MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) - A team of U.S. military experts arrived in Liberia on Monday to assess whether to deploy troops as part of a peacekeeping force that would restore order to a nation torn by civil war.


A blue and white wide-bodied helicopter brought the experts, wearing armor and some carrying assault weapons, to the U.S. Embassy compound in Liberia - a west African nation founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves.


Liberian President Charles Taylor, beset by rebels and indicted by a U.N.-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone, said Sunday he would step down and take exile in Nigeria, but urged the United States to send peacekeepers to ensure an orderly transition.


Taylor gave no timeframe for when he would quit and did not say the deployment of a peacekeeping force was a condition for his departure.


Navy Capt. Roger Coldiron, leader of the 32-person team, told reporters that his mission is to ``assess the security environment'' in the country as well as study the humanitarian needs of its 3 million people - suffering greatly from more than a decade of civil strife.


``There is a security component,'' Coldiron said. ``We want to be sure that whomever comes in is safe on the ground.''


A decision on whether U.S. soldiers will join an intervention force shouldn't be expected Monday, U.S. Ambassador John W. Blaney told reporters. Coldiron said the mission would take as long as needed before making any recommendation.


U.S. President George W. Bush heads to Africa Monday for visits to five nations - including regional power Nigeria. Bush has asked Taylor to step down.


White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday that Taylor's promise to leave ``remains encouraging'' but that he must act on his words ``so that stability can be achieved.''


U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had telephoned Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo on Saturday, but details of their conversation were not released. Obasanjo has offered Taylor asylum.


As Bush awaited the team's report, American lawmakers and officials voiced deep reservations about committing U.S. troops to the West African country.


Both the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Sunday they want Bush to get congressional approval before he sends any U.S. troops to Liberia.


At the same time, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said military leaders would prefer that West African armies take the lead in any effort to end the Liberian conflict and police the peace.


``We're always prepared, in case of U.S. citizens and our folks that are on official duty in the embassy and so forth, to do a noncombatant evacuation of those individuals,'' the chairman, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers said in a television interview Sunday.


``Beyond that, I think we'd really like to see the states in the region help with this particular problem,'' he told Fox News.


The United Nations and European leaders have sought U.S. troops to enforce an oft-violated cease-fire between forces loyal to Taylor and rebels fighting for three years to oust him. West African nations have offered 3,000 troops and have suggested that the United States contribute another 2,000.


After meeting Nigeria's President Obasanjo Sunday, Taylor said, ``He has extended an invitation and we have accepted an invitation.''


Obasanjo, whose nation led an intervention force in Liberia's 1989-96 civil war, has called for international support for a Liberian peacekeeping mission. There are fears violence could erupt if there is no smooth transition of power.


Taylor emerged from the last conflict as the strongest warlord and was elected president the following year.


He has been accused of supporting Sierra Leone's brutal Revolutionary United Front rebels, whose trademark atrocity was amputating the arms and facial features of their civilian victims with machetes.


Nigeria, like many countries, has no law allowing Taylor to be extradited to Sierra Leone to stand trial for war crimes trial, U.N. officials say.


Bush is scheduled to land Tuesday in Senegal, one largely peaceful West African nation that hasn't seen the ill effects of years of warring by Taylor - a former warlord long accused of sowing strife in the region by aiding rebel groups.


Nearly one third of Liberia's 3 million people have been forced from their homes by fighting since rebels took up arms against Taylor in 1999.



07/07/03 12:11


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