A team of U.S. Navy SEAL commandos began searching waters around Liberia’s main seaport yesterday in preparation for the brief deployment of 200 Marines.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Norton Schwartz, director of operations for Joint Staff, told reporters the SEALs are conducting an underwater search for obstacles before the 150-troop quick-reaction force and support personnel arrive to aid Nigerian peacekeepers.
Once forces belonging to the main rebel faction, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), withdraw from a port area near Bushrod Island, U.S. Marines will be sent to help Nigerian peacekeepers move to the port, Gen. Schwartz said.
The general said “Marines will be embedded with those elements moving to the port as liaison.”
The dispatch of 200 troops represents an increase from earlier plans to limit the U.S. military presence in war-torn Liberia to less than 100 troops.
About 100 American troops are already in Liberia, most of them providing security for the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia.
In Crawford, Texas, President Bush said the U.S. troops are working with the Nigerians.
“They are in the lead, and we are there in support,” Mr. Bush said. “My focus now is on making sure humanitarian relief gets to the people who are suffering in Liberia.”
Engineers and SEALs are checking waterways in the area in preparation for renewed humanitarian-aid shipments, he said.
“And in addition, there will be a land-based quick-reaction force to support the Ecomil forces both at the airport and at the port,” Gen. Schwartz said, referring to the Economic Community of West African States mission in Liberia.
Marine Harrier AV-8 jump jets and attack helicopters also will provide escort protection to Nigerian troops that move from Monrovia’s airport to the seaport, he said.
Not all the Marines will remain overnight, he said.
About a dozen Navy SEALs — which stands for Sea-Air-Land forces — began searching the waters off Monrovia yesterday and will clear any obstacles that would block access to the port.
The engineers will check whether the port facilities need improvements to speed up aid shipments.
The Marine support to Nigerian peacekeepers comes as rebels belonging to LURD said yesterday they will give up control of the port today.
Three Navy warships are deployed near Liberia with 2,300 Marines of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
The peacekeepers are being organized under Ecomil.
Looting was reported in the city following the departure earlier this week of Liberian President Charles Taylor from the country.
Thousands of Liberians looted food from the Monrovia port as a United Nations ship carrying food and medicine remained anchored off shore, according to wire-service reports from Liberia.
Mobs sacked several warehouses seeking food. By afternoon, the crowds had dwindled to several hundred people.
Sekou Fofana, the LURD deputy chief, told Agence France-Presse his forces had moved to stop the looting.
“Civilians are taking the food of their own free will. We are against that. They are entering the back yard of the port at their own risk,” he said. “We have now deployed security there, which will stay there until noon tomorrow afternoon, when we will hand over the Bushrod Island and the port to a peacekeeping force.”
Larry Di Rita, chief Pentagon spokesman, said the objective of the U.S. troops is “to let the Nigerian forces continue with stabilizing key areas of the city that are needed for the reinstatement of humanitarian operations.”
Mr. Di Rita said there are no plans to keep U.S. troops in Liberia a long time. The quick-reaction force will move out of the country as more Nigerian troops arrive.
Gen. Schwartz, a former special-operations commander, said despite the reports of looting, “the current assessment is that actually Monrovia is calm.”
The military’s Joint Task Force Liberia has four missions, he said. It will assess the readiness of Nigerian troops and provide any training they might need.
The U.S. force also will provide assistance to Ecomil “in order to achieve their objective of obtaining security and stability in the Monrovia area,” Gen. Schwartz said.
The last mission is to provide a rapid-reaction force “in the event that the Ecomil forces get in trouble,” he said.
“Now, this will be a narrow mission, in the sense that the objective will be to stabilize a situation where Ecomil feels that is not within their control. And once stabilized, then the Ecomil forces will continue with their mission,” Gen. Schwartz said.