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Marine task force moves closer to Liberia

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A three-ship U.S. naval task force carrying some 2,200 Marines has been ordered to sail from the east coast of Africa to the Mediterranean Sea, in case President Bush orders troops into Liberia.

Pentagon officials stressed the movement is a "precautionary measure" aimed at moving the Marines into a position where they could be more quickly dispatched to the war-torn African country in the event the United States decides to support a West African peacekeeping initiative there.

The task force consists of the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima, the amphibious transport dock ship USS Nashville, and the amphibious dock landing ship USS Carter Hall.

The ships carry about 1,900 sailors and about 2,200 Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

The Marine Expeditionary Unit includes about three-dozen helicopters and six Harrier jets.

The Iwo Jima is on its maiden voyage as the Navy's newest helicopter and troop carrier. It departed from Norfolk, Virginia, on March 5, 2003.

The United States has hinted it would provide some support troops for peacekeeping duties in Liberia, but only after a West African force is deployed and Liberian President Charles Taylor goes into exile in Nigeria.

Fighting flared up Friday in Liberia, with rebels pushing within six miles of Monrovia and threatening to overrun the capital unless Taylor ends attacks on the insurgents. (Full story)

In New York Thursday, Jacques Paul Klein, United Nations' new envoy for Liberia, said the White House is willing to make a commitment after the Economic Community of West African States does.

"The key thing is that we need ECOWAS to move quickly," Klein said, "The Americans will not make their decision until the ECOWAS troops are deployed."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan discussed with President Bush Monday about a possible U.S. commitment in Liberia.

"The understanding which is emerging now is for the ECOWAS forces to send in a vanguard of about 1,000 to 1,500 troops," said Annan after his meeting with Bush.

"After that, from what I gather, President Taylor will leave Liberia and then the force will be strengthened, hopefully with U.S. participation and additional troops from the West African region", Annan said.

"Eventually the U.N. blue helmets will be set up to stabilize the situation along the lines that we have done in Sierra Leone. And once the situation is calm and stabilized, the U.S. would leave and the U.N. peacekeepers will carry on the operation," he said.

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