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Mortar Fire Kills At Least 26 in Liberia, U.S. Positions Forces Off Coast

BY Admin  July 25, 2003 at 5:55 PM EDT

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan announced U.S. forces would be in place to assist an international peacekeeping group led by ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States.

“The president has directed the secretary of defense to position appropriate military capabilities off the coast of Liberia in order to support the deployment of an ECOWAS force once it is generated,” McClellan said in a statement released Friday. “The immediate task of the ECOWAS force is to reinforce a cease-fire and begin to create conditions where humanitarian assistance can be provided to the Liberian people.”

Elaborating on the announcement later in the day, President Bush said the mission was “to relieve human suffering” and stressed the U.S. would rely on the international community to bring a political peace to the war-torn West African nation.

“We’re working very closely with the United Nations. They will be responsible for finding a political solution and they will be responsible for relieving U.S. troops in short order,” the president said during an appearance with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

For weeks the Bush administration has been debating whether to deploy American troops to Liberia. In recent days, top military officials have expressed concern over American military involvement.

During a reconfirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the leaders of the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned that any American involvement in Liberia would pose military as well as political dangers. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers told the senators the military would face a long-term unstable situation in Liberia.

“It’s not a pretty situation; it’s not going to give way to any instant fix,” Myers said.

“I don’t think any operation like this is risk-free. We have at least three warring factions: the LURD, the MODEL — the two rebel groups — and the government forces themselves. They’re all armed. They are not disciplined troops as we know them,” he added. “It’s potentially a dangerous situation.”

The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, also expressed concern over the mission’s scope and clarity. He cited his experience in Somalia as similar to the situation American forces would face in Liberia.

During the Somalia deployment, American forces shifted focus from humanitarian assistance to stopping the violence and combating warlords. During one disastrous mission, 18 American soldiers were killed.

“If we’re asked to do something militarily, we need to make sure we do it with the proper numbers of troops and that we be prepared for the eventualities of having to take military action,” Pace told the senators.

Friday’s announcement from the White House appeared to acknowledge the Pentagon officials’ concerns, noting, “The U.S. role will be limited in time and scope as multinational forces under the United Nations assume the responsibility for peacekeeping and as the United Nations arranges a political transition in Liberia.”

The statement did not specify what forces would be deployed, but a Pentagon spokesman said Thursday a three-ship group was traveling through the Mediterranean Sea to waters off Liberia’s coast for possible duty. The group is headed by the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima and is carrying 2,300 Marines.

In Liberia, Friday’s fighting included heavy mortar fire in and around the American Embassy in Monrovia. Explosions hit the embassy grounds and surrounding areas, including the Newport Junior High School, where hundreds of displaced people had sought refuge. Correspondents reported seeing 12 dead at the school.

News services reported at least 26 died in the fighting and shelling Friday throughout Monrovia.

President Charles Taylor’s forces and rebel groups closing in on the capital blamed each other for launching the attack.

Liberians, many of whom had sought refuge from the fighting by coming to the American Embassy, expressed frustration with the lack of U.S. and international response.

“I want to tell George Bush to do something hurriedly, very fast and quickly,” Emmanuel Sieh, 28, told The Associated Press. “People are dying every day.”