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Heavy Fighting Reported As West African Team Arrives in Liberia

BY Admin  July 30, 2003 at 5:25 PM EDT

Nigerian Brigadier-General Festus Okonkwo, who will likely head the peacekeeping force, told reporters at Monrovia’s international airport, ”We’ve come here to see the situation on the ground … and then get back to look at our plan.”

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has said some 1,500 Nigerian troops are ready to go to Liberia, where fighting between government militia and rebels opposed to President Charles Taylor has killed hundreds in the capital over the last two weeks.

Five other African countries — Ghana, Mali, Benin, Senegal and Togo — have promised a total of 1,750 additional troops. ECOWAS officials hope to build the peacekeeping force to 5,000 soldiers.

Despite a rebel-announced cease-fire, fighting continued to rage Wednesday as teenage government troops and rebel gunmen battled for key bridges in the central part of the capital.

As the situation continued to unfold in Monrovia, President Bush reiterated the need for a West African force to be ready to move in before he commits U.S. forces to the region.

“The conditions that I laid out for the Liberian rescue mission still exist. Charles Taylor must go, the cease-fire must be in place, and we will be there to help ECOWAS. And so we’re working to get those conditions in place,” President Bush told reporters during a news conference.

Some international leaders have said the multinational peacekeeping deployment should move forward without waiting for the fighting to stop.

“This is one of those rare situations that even though the cease-fire has broken down, both sides genuinely seem to want the international force to come in… not just the government and the rebels but also the population,” United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said Wednesday.

At the United Nations, the Bush administration introduced a resolution to further support an international peacekeeping mission. The proposal calls on Annan to report to the Security Council by Aug. 15 on a U.N. peacekeeping force and deploy those troops by Oct. 1.

The U.S. hopes the Security Council will authorize the West African force “to support a cease-fire and to provide a secure environment for humanitarian deliveries,” State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said.

During his news conference, Mr. Bush said the U.S. would look to the U.N. to assume many of the peacekeeping and rebuilding efforts soon after any force moves into the war-torn West African nation.

“The idea, of course, is to go in, stabilize the situation, get the NGOs moving back in to … be able to help deliver aid, and then work immediately with the United Nations to provide blue helmets [the uniform of U.N. personnel],” Mr. Bush said, “and that the United Nations would then take up the peacekeeping mission, as well as the political mission, in order to provide the framework for a transition to democracy.”