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U.S. team prepares to leave for Liberia

U.N. official: Asylum for Taylor would violate law

Liberian President Charles Taylor has said he would step down after peacekeeping troops arrived.
Liberian President Charles Taylor has said he would step down after peacekeeping troops arrived.

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President Bush is sending military experts to Liberia to help determine whether troops should be ordered there as peacekeepers.
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Taylor says he will step down when international peacekeeping troops arrive.
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Inside Africa's Tumi Makgabo talks to Bush about the situation in Liberia.
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MONROVIA, Liberia (CNN) -- A U.S. assessment team of about a dozen people -- both military and civilian -- will leave Europe for Liberia Sunday, U.S. military officials said.

The team will try to determine what U.S. forces may do in the region, and how West African troops may contribute.

Meanwhile, Liberian President Charles Taylor plans to meet Sunday with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to discuss a temporary asylum offer, despite complaints from a U.N.-backed court that any such offer would violate international law, Liberian officials said.

Nigeria's offer to allow Taylor safe haven in Nigeria -- and shield him from prosecution on U.N. war crimes charges -- aims to help end a 3-year-old rebellion that has left thousands dead and even more homeless and starving.

The United States has moved Liberia toward the top of its agenda in recent days, citing special ties with the country founded in 1822 by freed American and West Indian slaves. The Bush administration is also concerned that terrorism can flourish in unstable parts of the region.

The current focus for the U.S. is on assembling a military humanitarian relief mission -- rather than a peacekeeping mission, military officials said.

Pentagon planners were spending the weekend trying to determine what the next steps may be.

The Bush administration has said Taylor is "the problem" and must step down.

In 1989, Taylor led a rebellion that triggered a civil war that lasted seven years and left an estimated 200,000 people dead.

Following a mediated peace settlement in 1996, Taylor won a 1997 special election that opponents said was marred by corruption and intimidation.

Taylor has said he will relinquish power but only after peacekeeping troops arrive. He said his departure beforehand would cause a further breakdown in law and order.

The White House has not decided whether to send U.S. troops to lead an international peacekeeping force, which would be composed largely of troops from ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, a Pentagon official said Saturday.

President Bush is scheduled to depart Monday night for Africa, where he plans to stop in the West African nations of Senegal and Nigeria, but not Liberia. He is expected to discuss the Liberian situation with African officials throughout his trip.

Obasanjo plans to stay in Liberia only one day, Liberian officials said.

Taylor told CNN he is considering a "soft landing" in Nigeria. But David Crane, prosecutor with the U.N.-backed court in Sierra Leone, said an asylum offer is not allowed because the court indicted Taylor on war crimes charges for his actions in the neighboring country.

Taylor is accused of arming and training rebels, many of them children, who engaged in brutal tactics, killing tens of thousands of civilians. The U.N.-backed court said he did so in exchange for diamonds.

Human rights groups accuse him of masterminding conflicts throughout the region with similar motives. Taylor denies the charges.

Nigerian officials have "a responsibility to turn him over to us. International law requires them to," Crane told CNN Friday. "West Africa and West African leaders need to understand it's the rule of law."

Asked whether any military would try to take Taylor out of Nigeria, Crane said the demand is not backed up force, but "backed up by law."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other international leaders have called on the United States to send peacekeeping troops to Liberia to help quell the fighting. But U.S. officials are wary of sending troops into the volatile region.

Among the concerns: U.S. troops could come up against Africa's child soldiers, young people trained to fight.

Groups opposed to Taylor's regime have been meeting in Ghana, planning steps toward reaching a settlement.

CNN's Jeff Koinange in Monrovia and Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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