MONROVIA, Liberia — As the United States considers whether to send troops to Liberia, the war-torn country’s main rebel movement yesterday threatened a “firefight” with any peacekeepers deployed there before President Charles Taylor steps down.
Mr. Taylor, who is wanted in connection with war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone, has promised to resign and accept asylum in Nigeria — but only after an international stabilization force arrives to ensure an orderly transition.
The rebels’ strongly worded threat came amid mounting security fears in the capital, where hundreds of war veterans protested yesterday outside the U.S. and European Union missions, complaining of attacks against Mr. Taylor’s followers by opponents emboldened by his expected departure.
The rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy has said it would welcome peacekeepers and wants U.S. troops to participate. But if the force comes with Mr. Taylor still in place, the rebels said it would only strengthen his ability to hang on to power.
“Any troops deployed before the departure of Taylor must be prepared for a firefight,” the group said in a communique.
President Bush, in Africa this week on a five-nation tour, faces growing international pressure to send U.S. troops to Liberia, founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has said a decision could come within days.
West African governments plan to send an initial 1,000 peacekeepers within two weeks and are asking the United States to contribute to the force.
Mr. Bush has remained noncommittal, but has pledged not to overextend American forces already heavily involved in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.
Mr. Powell said in South Africa on Thursday that any U.S. military role in Liberia will be “very limited in duration and scope,” intended only to help West African peacekeepers get established there.
He made it clear that the United States was not interested in a long-term peacekeeping or “nation-building” effort. That, he said, was a matter for West African states and the United Nations to handle.
During the week, Mr. Bush also has repeated his demand that Mr. Taylor resign as a first step to restoring peace.
“Taylor’s government is widely considered to be on its last legs,” the rebels said yesterday. “Taylor must leave now — before any deployment.”
As momentum builds against Mr. Taylor, about 500 Liberian veterans — many of whom fought with him in Liberia’s last civil war, which lasted from 1989 to 1996 — protested noisily outside the U.S. and European missions in Monrovia yesterday.
The former fighters, some on crutches or in wheelchairs, appealed to the United States to help create a unified army to fill the void if Mr. Taylor steps down. At least four veterans have been seriously assaulted in the past week in the increasingly restive capital, members of the veterans association said.
They also demanded that charges be dropped against Mr. Taylor — “for the sake of peace,” said Bobby Moore, 42, an army medic. “If they aren’t … there will be more bloodshed than there has been before,” he said.
The United Nations and European leaders have sought U.S. troops to enforce a repeatedly violated June 17 cease-fire between forces loyal to Mr. Taylor and rebels surrounding the capital. Under the deal, Mr. Taylor promised to step down, clearing the way for a transitional government that would oversee fresh elections.
The U.S. European Command, which is responsible for military operations in West Africa, has sent the commander of its special-operations branch, Brig. Gen. Gary M. Jones, to Liberia to take charge of the advisory team. Gen. Jones was in Liberia and neighboring countries in late May and early June as part of U.S. preparations for a potential evacuation mission.
Another part of the team was in nearby Ghana yesterday to meet with officials from the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, about their planned deployment to Liberia.