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Posted: 7/2/2003 5:42:31 PM EDT
Wednesday, July 02, 2003 WASHINGTON — The Bush administration appears to be gearing up to quell the dire humanitarian situation in Liberia (search), as senior defense officials told Fox News Wednesday the United States might send a "fast team" to the country to serve as peacekeepers. "We have the green light to do something in Liberia, we are working on that something right now," a senior defense official told Fox News. There were conflicting reports on whether or not an official decision had been made on the mission, which will likely be carried out by Marines. It was first reported that President Bush had decided to send the military team to Liberia, but later reports suggested he had made no decision. There is a "fast-team" of 50-75 Marines, specifically trained to provide security to the U.S. Embassy, on standby in Spain, according to defense officials. Senior officials told Fox News last week that the U.S. ambassador to Liberia had requested deployment of the Marine "fast team" shortly after two rocket-propelled grenade rounds exploded outside the main embassy compound in Monrovia (search), killing several Liberians who had lined up nearby. That "fast team" would be made up of some 50-75 Marines. Such a team is currently on standby in Spain. European Command (search) (EUCOM) would most likely take the lead in deploying any larger forces to Liberia. EUCOM told Fox News last week that there were several units it could deploy to Liberia if the order came from Washington. But it said none were nearby and it would take some time to get the troops in place. Just two weeks ago, there were several U.S. assets in the area, with about 450 U.S. troops "on the ground" in Monrovia, elsewhere in Liberia and in surrounding countries to monitor the rapidly changing combat situation, and to assist French efforts to evacuate Western civilians. But with the apparent declaration of a cease-fire among several warring parties, the forces were pulled out, as was the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (search), which had been sitting off the Liberian coast with a Marine expeditionary force aboard. The Kearsarge returned to Norfolk, Va., this week. President Bush on Wednesday lamented the human suffering and unrest in Liberia, but stopped short of saying whether his administration should send peacekeepers to the African nation -- an idea opposed by a U.S. military already committed to other world trouble spots. "The people are suffering there," Bush said. "The political instability is such that people are panicking ... but the good news is there's a cease-fire in place now." Bush said Secretary of State Colin Powell would work closely with the United Nations to determine the best way to keep the cease-fire in place. He called again for Liberian President Charles Taylor (search) to leave the country. "We're exploring all options as to how to keep the situation peaceful and stable," he said. "One thing has to happen: Mr. Taylor needs to leave the country. ... In order for there to be peace and stability in Liberia, Charles Taylor needs to leave now." Powell told a reporter Wednesday morning that Bush's top foreign policy advisers were expected to make their recommendations on Liberia to the president very soon. But the State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said as far as he knew, no recommendations had been given to the president yet. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan wants U.S. troops committed to peacekeeping in Liberia to give more "heft" to the operation, Boucher said. Powell talked by telephone to Annan twice on Tuesday, while the U.N. chief was traveling in Europe, and expects to talk to Annan again late Wednesday, Boucher said. At this stage, the U.S. official said, "it's not a question of go, or not go." Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld attended a White House meeting Wednesday morning on the issue after the National Security Council Tuesday failed to agree on a course of action in the West African nation, officials said. Rumsfeld is opposed to international proposals that the United States send 2,000 troops to head 3,000 peacekeepers from various other African countries, a senior defense official said. Still, Rumsfeld took with him to Wednesday's meeting a contingency plan for such a deployment, should the president order it. The Pentagon routinely works up and keeps on hand such plans for numerous problems around the world. Another senior defense official stressed that no decision had been made and said a range of options was being considered -- from sending no troops, to supporting financial support, to sending U.S. forces. More than 10,000 American troops are still working in and around Afghanistan since the beginning of the global war on terror in September 2001 and nearly 150,000 troops are stationed in a violent and troubled postwar Iraq. Defense officials say they are trying to avoid committing troops to Liberia as well. Rumsfeld also doubts there is a compelling U.S. interest in Liberia's affairs, aides say. Senior officials said Tuesday that no decision was imminent. But thousands of Liberians celebrated outside the U.S. Embassy in the Liberian capital of Monrovia late Tuesday as rumors spread about possible U.S. intervention. One senior administration official said Bush was reluctant to send troops purely as peacekeepers. But if the troops were given a clear mission as part of a defined coalition, Bush might be more inclined, this official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Another administration official said the White House did not want to take the military option off the table for fear of making headlines just before Bush starts a trip to Africa next Monday. Annan has suggested the United States take a leadership role in peacekeeping. West African leaders asked on Monday for 2,000 American troops to head a predominantly African force to stop the turmoil and keep the peace. The Africans said they want an answer before Bush leaves for the continent, but administration officials were noncommittal about whether they will have a response by then. France, Britain and both sides in Liberia's fighting also have pushed for an American role in a peace force for the country founded by freed American slaves in 1847. The current round of fighting in Liberia began three years ago as rebels began trying to oust Taylor, who won contested elections and took the presidency in 1997 after a 1989-96 civil war. Fighting killed hundreds of trapped civilians in Monrovia just last month, and the war has displaced more than 1 million Liberians. Because of the violence -- but apart from the question of U.S. peacekeepers -- several dozen U.S. Marines have for days been on standby at a Spanish military base in case they are needed as extra security at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia or to evacuate Americans.
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