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150 Marines leave Liberia

U.S. Marine helicopters prepare to leave Liberia.

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(CNN) -- A force of 150 U.S. Marines has left Liberia and returned to ships sailing near the coast, where they will remain for the immediate future, U.S. military officials told CNN Sunday.

The departure of the Quick Reaction Force leaves the peacekeeping mission there in the hands of 1,500 Nigerian troops.

The Nigerians are the vanguard of a West African force that is expected to maintain the peace and control the distribution of humanitarian aid throughout the war-torn country, the officials said.

Army Lt. Col. Thomas Collins told CNN the Marines "still have a (quick reaction force) mission, but we can react quicker from the ships."

Some 2,300 Marines are aboard three ships sailing near the Liberian coast.

"With the recent arrival of a second Nigerian battalion, ECOMIL forces now have the capability to take over the (quick reaction force) mission," a Pentagon official said, referring to the West African force.

ECOMIL is the military component of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States.

The return of the Marines to ships "reflects the reality that ECOMIL forces are gaining strength, the security situation is improving daily and a sense of normalcy is returning to Monrovia," Marine Corps Lt. Col. Michael Humm said.

"U.S. forces off shore remain postured to support ECOMIL" if the situation deteriorates, Humm said.

The Marines' departure disappointed many Liberians, The Associated Press reported from the capital Monrovia.

"Why did they go away?" Hawa Adra, a 31-year-year-old refugee, told AP as she watched the Americans withdrew.

"They're forsaking us," 22-year-old Emmanuel Slawon told AP. "We wish they'd stay until peace would come. Their presence here puts fear in our fighters -- it makes them think if they carry on hostilities, they'll be handled by the Americans."

About 200 Marines went ashore in Liberia on August 14 at the request of the Nigerian commander there.

Fifty of those troops conducted assessments related to the distribution of humanitarian aid, and 150 stayed at Roberts International Airport near Monrovia to be available in case Nigerian forces needed combat support.

The ECOMIL force of about 1,500 Nigerian peacekeepers is expected to grow to about 3,200 troops with the arrival of troops from other African nations in the coming weeks.

U.S. Marines patrol
U.S. Marines have been in Liberia to support African peacekeepers.

The mission is expected to be taken over in the autumn by a U.N. peacekeeping force.

Collins, who is aboard the U.S.S. Iwo Jima near the Liberian coast, told CNN, "We are here to support ECOMIL and we want them to succeed."

He said about 60 U.S. Marines remain at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia to provide security, and a small number are still ashore working as a liaison team with the ECOMIL force.

At the geographic center of the Nigerian peacekeeping effort is Bushrod Island, where the Nigerian forces have drawn a line between the various warring factions, which include two rebel groups and government forces.

Collins said the situation is fairly stable but will still be monitored closely.

CNN Pentagon Correspondent Chris Plante contributed to this report

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