Bush leaves for Africa, withholds decision on troops

Tuesday, July 8, 2003

From wire reports

President Bush began his five-nation trip to Africa on Monday night without announcing a decision on whether he will send U.S. troops to Liberia.

Bush was linking his decision to President Charles Taylor's fulfilling a commitment to leave Liberia, but Taylor appeared to complicate matters by saying he would leave only after the arrival of an international stabilization force.

In two interviews, Taylor left unclear whether his demand was for a force that included Americans. Talking with an Associated Press reporter, he indicated that was necessary. He then told Associated Press Television News that an international force was the key, not whether it had a U.S. component.

Also Monday, a U.S. military team arrived in Liberia to begin a "humanitarian assessment" that could lead to a deployment of U.S. troops to restore order.

"Our interest is to take a look at Liberia, see what we can do in terms of humanitarian aid," said Navy Capt. Roger Coldiron, leader of the multiservice team. The first members of the 32-strong team arrived by helicopter on the tailored U.S. Embassy lawn, some in full combat gear and clutching assault rifles.

When the balance of the military team arrives today, they will visit the schools, stadiums and deserted embassies where thousands of Liberians have huddled since fighting between government and rebel forces drove them from their homes and camps last month.

Bush was to arrive this morning in Senegal, a West African democracy, after an overnight flight from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.

Taylor promised Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo on Sunday that he would accept the Nigerian leader's offer of temporary asylum to get Taylor out of the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

A senior administration official said Taylor was seeking assurances of a safe transfer to Nigeria before exiting Liberia and presumably ending six often-tumultuous years as the country's leader.

The official, who asked not to be identified, said no announcement on a U.S. troop commitment was expected today.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Taylor's departure "needs to be done as soon as possible, but obviously in a manner that avoids chaos and enhances stability."

Liberia was high on the agenda of Secretary of State Colin Powell over the long holiday weekend. He conferred with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Friday, Saturday and Monday and with Obasanjo on Friday.

Annan welcomed Taylor's promise to step down, calling it "a significant turning point" for Liberia after three years of warfare, the latest round in an on-and-off insurrection Taylor, then a warlord, started in 1989.

Annan encouraged Liberian parties to adhere to a June 17 cease-fire accord and to agree on arrangements for an orderly transition of power after Taylor's departure.

One unanswered question was whether Taylor's prospective exit would affect charges by a U.N. tribunal that he engaged in war crimes by supporting a rebel movement in Sierra Leone that was noted for committing atrocities against civilians.

The senior U.S. official said that issue is between Obasanjo and the U.N. prosecutor. Obasanjo has said he sees the indictment as an obstacle to a durable peace in Liberia.

Boucher said a group of West African nations is leading the way militarily and politically in an effort to bring stability to Liberia. He also noted that the group is preparing military forces to go to Liberia.

"The United States is willing to participate with them in that effort to bring stability and peace to the people of Liberia," he said.

West African nations have offered 3,000 troops and have suggested that the United States contribute another 2,000.

While stressing that no decision has been made to deploy U.S. troops, Boucher said the administration has military assessment and disaster assistance teams on the ground in Liberia.

Aid workers, diplomats and analysts described the United States as the obvious and best choice to address the precarious situation. Liberians, whose nation was founded for freed American slaves, nurture a profound enthusiasm for all things American, from the billboards picturing a paternalistic Uncle Sam down to U.S.-style 110-volt electrical outlets.

"They don't need to win hearts and minds here," said one diplomat. "They're already won."

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