Advisers pay visit to camp in Liberia

Friday, July 11, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia -- U.S. military advisers on Thursday toured a camp that once housed tens of thousands of Liberian refugees from more than a decade of civil strife -- now largely deserted after it was overrun by fighting.

The few who remained -- mostly too old or too frail to flee -- pleaded for America to come to their rescue.

"We want peacekeepers from George Bush," said Masslie Bearbear, 71, who sleeps under a leaky roof with three generations of his family. "If we don't have security, we will die."

The United States faces mounting international pressure to lead a peacekeeping force in Liberia, a nation founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century that now is bogged down in a three-year war between forces loyal to President Charles Taylor and rebels seeking to oust him.

President Bush, who is touring five African nations this week, is noncommittal and has pledged not to overextend American forces already involved in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. He also has repeated his demand that Taylor resign as a first step toward restoring peace.

Bush likely will decide in days whether to send troops, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday.

Taylor has accepted a Nigerian offer of asylum on condition that an international force be deployed to ensure an orderly transition.

The U.S. team, in Liberia to assess security conditions and humanitarian needs of its 3 million people, drove past empty villages to reach the crumbling Voice of America relay station, where a few bombed-out buildings and rusting radio towers are all that remain of what once was a symbol of U.S. engagement in the West African country.

Many of the camp's tens of thousands of residents fled when fighting between Taylor's forces and rebels surrounding his capital overran the northwestern outskirts of Monrovia last month, hiding in the surrounding forest and seeking shelter in churches, schools and a sports stadium.

The few hundred people who remained Thursday complained of nightly looting and raping raids by Taylor's heavily armed fighters -- including "small boys," one man said, placing a hand near his waist to indicate a child soldier's height.

"If you're lucky, they let you live. If you're not, they kill you," Bearbear said.

Food and other aid is regularly intercepted by fighters, residents said. Many are pinning their hopes on the United States, calling on old ties many Americans never knew they had.

"This is an American country. George Bush is our president," Bearbear said.

The United Nations and European leaders want American troops to enforce a repeatedly violated June 17 cease-fire between the government and the rebels. Under the deal, Taylor promised to step down, clearing the way for a transitional government to oversee elections.

West African nations plan to send an initial contingent of 1,000 troops within the next two weeks and are asking the United States to contribute 1,500 troops to the force.

Ten members of the U.S. military team were in nearby Ghana on Thursday to meet with regional leaders planning the deployment, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Rick Haupt said at the military's European Command headquarters in Germany.

Powell said the advisers are discussing what will be required to move the West African troops into Monrovia and support them, and "what role the United States might play." He also said "the preference would be for Mr. Taylor to leave at about the same time" the regional force arrives.

Meanwhile, Taylor said it should take about a week to conclude an agreement to bring African troops into the country.

"And then, other than that, there should be no reason for me to be hanging around here," Taylor told "Fox News Channel."

Meanwhile, Bush and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will meet Monday at the White House to discuss the conflict in Liberia, as well as Congo, Mideast peace prospects, Iraq and Afghanistan, U.N. spokeswoman Hua Jiang said.

The United States also secured permission from Guyana to refuel planes there if American troops go to Liberia. The planes can begin landing "in a matter of days," said Robert Persaud, a spokesman for Guyana's president, Bharrat Jagdeo.

Taylor, who has been indicted for allegedly committing war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone during its rebel insurgency, is viewed by international prosecutors, diplomats and some Liberians as the main impediment to peace in the troubled region.

The one-time warlord repeatedly has promised to step down and on Sunday accepted an offer of asylum from Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Taylor waged civil war in 1989-1996 before being elected president in 1997 with threats of plunging Liberia back into bloodshed.

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