U.S. to send small military team to Liberia
Goal is to assess needs for possible peacekeeping mission
MONROVIA, Liberia (CNN) -- The U.S. military will send an assessment team to Liberia this weekend, a military official told CNN.
The team of about a dozen people will depart from Europe as soon as air transport can be arranged, the official said. The team's task will be to determine the requirements for a peacekeeping mission in Liberia, which could include troops from the United States and the Economic Community of West African States.
Two rebel factions in Liberia are insisting that President Charles Taylor step down, as he agreed to do in a recent cease-fire pact.
Taylor has said he will leave when an international team of peacekeepers has arrived to maintain order.
"Before I transit, I think it is important that peacekeepers be present," he told a meeting of Liberian clerics Friday.
Taylor told CNN that if he were to leave immediately, the country would erupt in even greater chaos and anarchy.
Taylor seized power in a 1989 rebellion and won a 1997 special election that opponents said was tainted by intimidation tactics. For as long as he has held the office, the country has been engaged in civil war. More than 200,000 have been killed, and tens of thousands suffer from starvation.
Fighting has continued in recent days despite a cease-fire agreement signed June 17.
A Pentagon official stressed that sending a U.S. assessment team does not signal the beginning of a larger movement of troops to the region.
The U.S. military had a small assessment team in Liberia several weeks ago that operated out of the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia. The team's mission was to assess security concerns in case an evacuation of the embassy were required.
Bush: Taylor must step down
U.S. President George W. Bush has said Taylor must step down for there to be any progress in ending Liberia's bloody civil war.
In an interview Thursday with CNN's Inside Africa, Bush would not say whether U.S. troops would forcibly depose Taylor should the Liberian president refuse to step down.
"I'm convinced he will listen and make the decision -- the right decision -- if he cares about his country," Bush said.
Liberian cabinet minister Samuel P. Jackson, a close adviser to Taylor, told CNN that Taylor has long said he would step down once the proper conditions are in place. Those conditions, he said, include the presence of a peacekeeping force.
"This has to be an orderly transition -- not a surrender by a legitimate government to some rebel organization," he said.
Jackson warned that if Taylor is ousted in a rush, even more chaos will erupt, and "there will be a Rwanda-style genocide in Liberia."
Liberian rebels seeking what they call a return to democracy in the country take a different view.
"Mr. Taylor is a fugitive from law," said Kabineh J'anneh, spokesman for Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, the main rebel group.
Human rights groups accuse Taylor of masterminding conflicts throughout the region. A U.N. court indicted him on war crimes charges for allegedly arming and training rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone in exchange for diamonds. An estimated 50,000 people died in that nation's 10-year civil war.
Taylor has demanded assurances that he would not have to face the charges in exchange for stepping down. U.S. and U.N. officials have not said whether they would offer such a deal.
Nigeria has tentatively offered Taylor asylum, an offer he initially rejected. He told CNN he thinks of it as a "soft landing," and will be continuing discussions with Nigerian officials.
President Bush is expected to make a decision about peacekeeping troops before he leaves on a trip to Africa next week. He does not plan to visit Liberia.
White House officials said the proposals under consideration range from a force of 500 to about 1,000. The Pentagon has ordered the U.S. European Command to prepare a list of military options and recommend a course of action.
U.S. officials said the United States has an interest in securing peace in the beleaguered country. Liberia was founded by freed U.S. slaves in 1822 and has what Bush called "special ties" to the United States.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice also said that since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has been wary of permitting "conditions of failed states to create conditions in which there's so much instability that you begin to see greater sources of terrorism."