US marines diverted to Liberia
By Mark Turner at the United Nations, Michael Peel in Lagos and Guy Dinmore in Washington
Published: June 13 2003 22:02 | Last Updated: June 13 2003 22:02

A US marine expeditionary force was heading for the strife-riven west African state of Liberia on Friday night after Washington came under increased pressure to deploy troops in what would be its biggest military engagement in Africa since the early 1990s.

The USS Kearsarge, carrying 1,800 marines, 1,200 sailors and attack helicopters, was diverted on its homeward voyage from Iraq to prepare for the possible evacuation of civilians from Liberia where rebel fighters have reached the edge of the capital, Monrovia.

The ship's redeployment comes amid concerns in the US military that its forces are overstretched.

The US army is engaged in combat operations in Iraq some six weeks after President George W. Bush said they were over.

The US has avoided engagements in Africa since the ill-fated Somalia intervention, when 18 army rangers lost their lives in Mogadishu on a single day.

There is resistance in the Bush administration to the idea of the US being co-opted as a global policeman, especially in a region where it has no clear strategic interest. Many Republicans severely criticised the Clinton administration for its entanglement in Somalia.

Lt Col MJ Jadick, of the task force, under US European command, said the Kearsarge was already in the region. US military officials said a small group of US troops had already arrived in Monrovia to help the embassy.

The diversion of the USS Kearsarge follows calls for a US-led multinational intervention force to secure a fragile ceasefire after a week of renewed fighting between the Liberian rebels and the government of Charles Taylor (pictured). One official said there were proposals for the US to join up to 2,000 Nigerian peacekeepers, with the US running a headquarters and logistics base.

Remi Oyo, spokeswoman for President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, said Nigeria had been talking to the US on the issue of peace in Liberia, although she said she had no comment on the subject of troop deployments.

A United Nations diplomat said it was possible the Security Council could give its blessing to a temporary deployment in Liberia of troops from the US and other nations.

International Crisis, an influential lobby group, has led calls for the US to intervene in a country that was founded by freed American slaves in 1847. There are concerns that new instability in Liberia risks spiralling to much of west Africa.

"Just as the UK led in Sierra Leone and France led in the Ivory Coast, the US must now assist the nation it helped establish, including through the deployment of troops if necessary," it said in a recent briefing.

Reuters reported that Liberia's warring parties were on Friday haggling over a ceasefire at peace talks in Ghana. Despite a halt in fighting, neither Mr Taylor nor rebels seemed ready to resolve their differences.