Liberia's Taylor accepts asylum offer
On eve of African tour, Bush considers U.S. deployment
MONROVIA, Liberia (CNN) -- Embattled President Charles Taylor of war-torn Liberia said Sunday that he has accepted an offer of asylum from Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, but he did not specify a timetable.
U.S. President George W. Bush, who has said Taylor's immediate departure is necessary for peace, is scheduled to leave Monday night on a five-nation African tour that includes stops in nearby Senegal and Nigeria.
Bush is considering sending U.S. troops to Liberia to assist peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts, officials said.
Speaking Sunday after their meeting in Monrovia, Taylor said Obasanjo "has extended an invitation. We have accepted the invitation. ...
"I think it is proper that we proceed gingerly and with haste. Because I did understand President Bush that things must be done quickly, as there is a window of opportunity. We accept that window, and we act hastily."
Obasanjo said Taylor could act on the invitation "any time he chooses to take advantage of it."
Last week Taylor said he would consider relinquishing power and going to neighboring Nigeria, which he has described not as asylum but as a "soft landing."
But he has refused to leave his war-torn country until an international peacekeeping force is in place to prevent further chaos. The nation has suffered through 10 years of civil war since 1989.
Taylor was indicted in June by a U.N.-backed court in Sierra Leone on charges that, in exchange for diamonds, he armed and trained rebels there who killed thousands of civilians and abducted and tortured others. A special prosecutor with the court said offering Taylor asylum from the charges would violate international law.
A U.S. State Department official said the war crimes issue was "on the back burner" and the focus was on getting Taylor out of Liberia.
Crowds at Monrovia's airport welcoming Nigeria's president Sunday held placards that pleaded for the indictment to be dropped.
U.S. sends assessment team
A U.S. team of 10-15 military civil affairs specialists from European Command headquarters in Germany, accompanied by a similar number of Marines to provide security, is due to arrive Monday morning in Liberia to assess needs for a possible humanitarian mission in concert with West African nations.
The team includes military civil affairs experts familiar with medical and engineering matters. It will operate out of the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia.
A priority for such an effort would be to set conditions for international aid workers to return. Nearly all have fled the country in recent weeks.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on "Fox News Sunday" that the United States would like to see the states in the region help Liberia. But if military action should prove necessary, he said, he hoped it would be "of short duration."
Asked whether the United States would consider using force to remove Taylor from power, Myers said, "I don't think that would be one of our options."
Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters a number of questions needed to be answered before any U.S. forces were sent to the country.
"What is the risk? Is it vital to our national security interest? What are the details of the mission? And what is the exit strategy?" he said, adding, "This senator is very concerned about the safety for any Americans who go into that situation now."
Taylor's rise to power
In 1989, Taylor led a revolt against the Liberian dictator Samuel Doe that triggered seven years of civil war, during which an estimated 200,000 people died, according to the U.S. government.
Taylor's faction emerged from the fighting as the dominant force, and after a mediated peace settlement in 1996, he won a special election in 1997 that opponents said was marred by corruption and intimidation.
Fighting resumed in 2000 when Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy revolted against Taylor. Since then, there has been no end to the violence.
The rebels and their allies hold 60 percent of the country, but the economy is in disarray and the infrastructure is in ruins. Thousands have died and illness runs rampant. Much of the population of 3.3 million is homeless and starving.
A cease-fire agreement reached June 17 failed to stop the fighting. A senior State Department official said Saturday that the United States was trying to get commitments from both sides to accept a new cease-fire.
Bush has spoken publicly about Liberia's plight in recent days, citing "special ties" with the country, which was founded by the American Colonization Society in 1822 as a place to resettle freed slaves.
One military option includes deploying 2,000 Marines -- either a unit on the U.S. East Coast or a unit aboard the USS Iwo Jima, which is on its way back from the Persian Gulf, a senior State Department official said.
Among the concerns U.S. officials have about sending in troops is the prospect they could come up against child soldiers. Taylor is also accused of arming young people in West African regional conflicts.
CNN correspondent Jeff Koinange in Monrovia, Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr and State Department producer Elise Labott contributed to this report.