A detachment of 225 U.S. Marines swept into Liberia’s embattled capital of Monrovia early Sunday to evacuate Americans after a rebel leader threatened to arrest foreigners in an attempt to provoke international intervention in the nation’s civil war.
But the Marines, who flew in from four U.S. ships that have been stationed offshore for months, were under orders not to actively intercede in the fighting among government forces loyal to President Samuel K. Doe and two separate rebel groups, according to U.S. officials in Washington.
The rescue mission came on the eve of an African summit scheduled for today to discuss the creation of a multinational African military force to bring peace to Liberia, where civil war broke out seven months ago.
The session was scheduled for Banjul, Gambia, under pressure from Nigeria, the country with the largest and best-trained military in West Africa. Nigerian officials said earlier this weekend that they might send a peacekeeping force themselves if no other solution arises to the sustained tribal conflict in Liberia.
The American rescue party encountered no resistance when it reached Liberian soil about 9 a.m. local time. By late in the day, 59 American citizens had been flown to safety on the Saipan, a helicopter assault ship. From there the evacuees are expected to be taken to Freetown, the capital of neighboring Sierra Leone.
All U.S. citizens in Liberia had been warned of the danger of remaining there and asked to depart, but many declined, Bush Administration officials said. With the evacuation of 59, about 311 remained at the end of the day Sunday.
As the operation got under way, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said it was intended to evacuate all of the Americans who wished to leave.
Dubbed “Operation Sharp Edge,” the evacuation saw Marines in combat gear swept ashore aboard 23 Sea Knight, Sea Stallion and Cobra helicopters to put the Americans aboard. According to the Pentagon, the move was ordered after a formal request from U.S. Ambassador Peter de Vos.
The forces were sent in to “secure the (U.S.) Embassy, accomplish the rescue operation, secure and remove Americans from two communications sites (and) remain as long as necessary to assure the security” of the remaining embassy staff, Fitzwater said.
The Pentagon said that, in addition to the embassy, Americans were evacuated from a “Voice of America site” five miles north of the compound and from a “telecommunications site” six miles to the south.
Administration sources, who declined to be identified, said the stations actually served to transmit information from all of Africa to CIA headquarters outside Washington and to assist submarine navigation in the Atlantic.
Although a skeleton staff will remain at the U.S. Embassy, sources said the communications sites will be abandoned for the duration of the fighting in Liberia, and there is no plan to leave Marines to protect them.
Late Sunday, after nightfall in Liberia, a Pentagon spokesman said the situation was “in a sense secured,” and attention had turned to delivering the Americans to Freetown.
“The Marines will remain in Liberia as long as necessary to ensure the safety of U.S. citizens in that country,” Fitzwater told reporters at the White House on Sunday morning. The U.S. action, he added, “does not indicate or constitute any intention on the part of the U.S. government to intervene militarily in the Liberian conflict.” But the Marines understood they were “in a battle situation” and were to use any necessary force to complete the evacuation, he said.
Thirty-five key members of Congress were notified of the move about 1 a.m. PDT Sunday, an hour before Marines reinforcements went ashore. Word of the evacuation also was passed to the embattled Liberian president, who has been offered U.S. assistance in leaving the country, and to the two rebel factions.
“The purpose of this operation,” Fitzwater said, “is to safeguard lives, to draw down the number of Americans at the embassy to minimum staff and to provide additional security for those who remain.”
About 70 U.S. diplomats and 300 other American citizens have remained in the afflicted city since it was cut off from most substantial contact with the outside world about a month ago. In that time, Monrovia’s power and water supplies have been cut and food supplies have dwindled.
Meanwhile, government and rebel troops have ranged about the city skirmishing with each other and engaging in wholesale mayhem. One week ago, a company evidently of government troops invaded a city church where thousands of civilians had sought shelter and opened fire, killing at least 270 people and possibly as many as 600.
U.S. officials had said that the 2,100 Marines on the four American ships off the Liberian coast would take no action unless there is a specific threat to American citizens or properties in Monrovia.
“The President does not want U.S. troops to go into Liberia and shoot Liberians,” Herman Cohen, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told reporters in Nairobi on Friday. “We do not want to use military force to effect a political outcome.”
But a threat to American lives materialized Saturday when rebel leader Prince Johnson announced that he would begin to arrest American, British, Lebanese and Indian citizens in the capital to “create an international incident so foreign troops can come in to intervene.” Johnson, commander of a rebel force that split off from the main rebel body under Charles Taylor in February and that has since been fighting soldiers loyal to Doe and Taylor, pledged that the detainees would not be harmed.
About 2,000 foreign nationals, mostly Lebanese and Indian merchants, are thought to still be in Monrovia. On Sunday, Spain requested the Marines’ help in getting food and medicine to its embassy in Monrovia, where 100 people have taken shelter, and to evacuate those who wished to leave, the Spanish Foreign Ministry said.
Coming two days after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and in the midst of concern over a possible move against Saudi Arabian oil fields, the timing of the Liberian evacuation raised questions of a possible connection between the U.S. response to the two crises.
Interviewed on the CBS program “Face the Nation,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) observed that the situation in Monrovia had provided “a marvelous opportunity for George Bush to send a message to (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein.”
The coincidence, added Sen. James Sasser (D-Tenn.), also provided an opportunity for the Bush Administration to reassure the American public “at a time when we appear helpless in dealing with the situation in the Middle East.”
But the White House insisted that the situation in the Liberian capital was justification enough for the action. Besides the threat of arrests of foreign nationals Saturday, sporadic gunfire rocked the neighborhood of the U.S. Embassy and downtown Monrovia. Fitzwater noted that food shortages have intensified in recent days.
Bush monitored developments from the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., where he was also tracking the crisis in the Middle East. His decision to proceed with the evacuation was made Saturday afternoon.
The Liberian crisis began last Christmas Eve, when 200 poorly trained and lightly armed rebels entered the country from neighboring Ivory Coast under the command of Taylor, a former Cabinet minister who had fallen out with Doe.
Taylor professed to have the backing of the Gio and Mano tribes of Liberia, who felt they had been shouldered out of power by Doe and his Krahn tribesmen. As his troops moved south toward Monrovia, Taylor picked up thousands of supporters as the fighting took on the character of an intertribal war. As many as 5,000 Liberians, most of them civilians, have died in the fighting and the tribal massacres this year.
Expectations that government forces would collapse and Doe would flee as Taylor’s army approached the coast failed to come true when rebels first reached the capital in June. The result has been a prolonged standoff between rebels and the government in and around Monrovia.
In part, the rebel advance has been hampered by the infighting between Taylor and Johnson, one of his former allies, who now considers himself a more genuine spokesman for Gio and Mano people than Taylor. The two forces have taken time off from their assault on Doe’s oceanfront mansion to assault each other.
“If they were fighting as a united front, victory for the rebels would be in sight,” one prominent Liberian exile in New York said in a weekend interview.
But Doe’s troops have also shown unexpected mettle, say observers from Monrovia, in part because they may fear being slaughtered if the rebels prevail. In seesaw, street-by-street fighting over the last two weeks, they have managed to push rebel positions back and retake some key strategic targets in the city.
Doe took power as a lowly master sergeant in a bloody 1980 coup that overthrew President William Tolbert, a descendant of freed American slaves who founded independent Liberia in 1847. Tolbert was killed in the coup, and 13 of his ministers were executed on a Monrovia beach a few days later.
The U.S. government supported Doe for years, most conspicuously in 1985, when the State Department overtly condoned his manifest theft of the presidential election that year. But American support began to wane as his government’s abuse of human rights mounted, including the jailing of opposition leaders and journalists.
The United States has granted Liberia no aid other than humanitarian assistance, mostly food deliveries, in three years, a senior U.S. official said over the weekend.
Throughout this year’s fighting, the U.S. government has taken pains to appear neutral. In part, this reflects mistrust of Taylor, who was arrested in the United States, where he fled after the Doe government accused him of embezzling nearly $1 million from a ministry under his control, but escaped before he could be extradited. Many Liberians consider the charges trumped up.
Taylor, who declared himself head of an interim Liberian government last week, has not pledged to hold democratic elections. He has specifically ruled out the participation in his government of any of the opposition political leaders who contested the 1985 election and had been preparing for a new election next year.
“It’s clear we made a mistake in 1985,” one U.S. official said over the weekend. “We’ve given Charles Taylor notice that if he comes to power there will be no assistance unless he goes down the right road"--in other words, toward free elections.
Prince Johnson, whose force is thought to include some of the better-trained and elite officers of Taylor’s original army, is seen by some as a potential counterweight to Taylor’s more non-democratic instincts.
Johnson is a U.S.-trained former lieutenant in the government army who defected in 1985 to a rebel force led by former Doe associate Thomas Qwiwonkpa, who staged an abortive coup that year and died in the attempt.
One Liberian who shared quarters with Johnson in 1985 called him a “hardheaded, uncompromising” officer who was often disciplined for insubordination. He joined Qwiwonkpa, this friend said, “because he was so discontented with the fraudulent results of the election.”
The remaining factor in the Liberian equation is a possible peacekeeping force of African soldiers. Many Liberians would be unnerved if the force were largely Nigerian, because Nigerian President Ibrahim B. Babangida has been a generous supporter of the Doe regime in recent years.
A Nigerian invasion would not necessarily stop the bloodletting immediately, because Taylor has pledged to combat any such force.
But many Liberian observers say that only an international peacekeeping force will guarantee an end to the conflict, aggravated as it has been by tribal animosity.
Staff writer Rudy Abramson, in Washington, contributed to this story.
BACKGROUND Liberia, on the southwest coast of the West African bulge, was founded by freed American slaves in 1822 and became Africa’s first republic in 1847. The population of 2.3 million includes descendants of the slaves--about 5% of the total--and 16 ethnic groups. A 1980 military coup led by Samuel K. Doe installed the first government controlled by indigenous Liberians after decades of rule by descendants of the American founders. Doe rose to the presidency and has survived attempted assassinations or coups four times.