- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

From combined dispatches

MONROVIA, Liberia — Heavily armed Marine reinforcements yesterday leapt from helicopters in driving rain to help defend the U.S. Embassy after fighting between government and rebel forces swept into the capital’s diplomatic quarter and at least one mortar smashed into the embassy compound.

Another shell hit an American housing compound across the street, killing 25 Liberians among the estimated 10,000 who were sheltering in the diplomatic complex. Residents lined up 18 mangled bodies in front of the embassy, apparently to protest U.S. failure to halt the fighting.

The U.S. State Department condemned the rebels for “reckless and indiscriminate shelling,” which was blamed for at least 90 deaths and more than 360 injured yesterday, the bloodiest day of fighting in three rebel attempts to seize the capital in the past two months.

In Crawford, Texas, President Bush said his administration is “working with the United Nations” to end the violence.

The Pentagon announced it was shifting ships carrying some 4,500 U.S. sailors and Marines from the Horn of Africa to the Mediterranean to be more readily available for duty in the embattled West African nation.

Helicopter crews kept their engines running and machine guns at the ready as 41 Marines in green camouflage, body armor and helmets leapt out to back up the 35 Marines already on duty defending the American Embassy. The reinforcements were part of a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team that had been standing by in neighboring Sierra Leone.

The helicopters took off again carrying 25 to 30 foreign aid workers and some foreign journalists who had run up a hill in the embassy compound clutching bags and backpacks. Marines and embassy officials yelled, “Go, go,” as they ran through the rain.

Dozens of mortars crashed into the diplomatic neighborhood during the day, sending a wave of terrified residents fleeing with bundles of possessions balanced on their heads.

One shell hit a house in another neighborhood, killing 18 persons inside, emergency workers at the scene said.

One shell hit the commissary building inside the main U.S. Embassy compound, but no one was injured.

Clustered on street corners, Liberians listened on hand-held radios to news of the Marines being deployed to defend the embassy.

“The coming of additional American troops is important,” one man, Moses Smith, 32, told the Associated Press. “But what we need is not those just coming to mind American property, but those who will be deployed on the ground to give us the feeling that peace is really coming.”

Another man, Josiah Dogbah, told Reuters news agency: “If they do not value our lives and come and help us, then they should just leave.”

Liberians — whose country was founded by freed American slaves — had pinned their hopes for an end to the fighting on Washington since Mr. Bush proposed this month to contribute to an international force being assembled to enforce a cease-fire that broke down over the weekend.

Speaking yesterday at his ranch in Texas, Mr. Bush expressed concern for Americans in Monrovia and said, “We’re working with the United Nations to effect policy necessary to get the cease-fire back in place.

“We are working with [the Economic Community of West African States] to determine when they will be prepared to move in the peacekeeper troops that I have said we’ll be willing to help move into Liberia,” he added.

A Pentagon spokesman said 4,500 U.S. troops on three warships were being moved into the Mediterranean, but they had no orders yet to go to Liberia.

The spokesman said it would take seven to 10 days to sail from the Mediterranean to Liberia.

West African military chiefs meet today to discuss deploying a peacekeeping mission. The mission is already several weeks late and there is no sign of a promised 1,500-troop vanguard force to deal with the chronic violence and unrest.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the Liberian rebels, who seek to overthrow President Charles Taylor, “need to think about the plight of the civilian population, the humanitarian workers who are there to alleviate suffering.”

“And this breaking of the cease-fire is something we call on them to end,” he said.

Mr. Bush has insisted that Mr. Taylor leave Liberia as a prerequisite to deployment of U.S. troops in the country. But Mr. Taylor, a former warlord wanted by a U.N.-backed war-crimes court in Sierra Leone, has promised to go into exile in Nigeria only after foreign peacekeepers arrive in the coastal capital.

The two rebel factions, who between them hold about two-thirds of Liberia, have their roots in tribal hatreds inflamed by a civil war in the 1990s that killed at least 200,000 people.

In New York yesterday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on the United States and the Economic Community of West African States to make swift preparations to deploy peacekeepers.

Staff writer Joseph Curl contributed to this report from Crawford, Texas.

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