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US military team arrives in Monrovia

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MONROVIA, - A 32-member United States government military assessment team arrived in Liberia on Monday morning to be greeted by hundreds of cheering Liberians outside the US embassy compound in the capital, Monrovia.

Upon arrival at the Roberts International airport, about 40 km southeast of the city, the team was flown on helicopters onto the embassy lawns at the Mamba Point diplomatic enclave of Monrovia.

US ambassador to Liberia John William Blaney told reporters the team consisted of both military and civilian personnel. Apart from reviewing the security situation, it was scheduled to visit various camps for internally displaced persons and refugees to assess the conditions of the war affected people.

"We are greatly concerned about the humanitarian situation in Liberia", Blaney said. But asked if the arrival of the team marked the beginning of a US peacekeeping operation in Liberia, he added: "The decision on a larger deployment of a peacekeeping force will be made by President Bush."

The head of the team, Captain Roger Couldron, Navy commander at the US European Command, said the purpose of their visit was "to assess the security environment and how ships could get in to bring humanitarian assistance to the country."

Captain Couldron added: "We hope to have a safe working environment. We want to be sure that whomever comes in is safe on the ground. The team will remain in Liberia as long as it needs to be."

The security component of the mission, he added, was to review the security situation triggered-off by fighting in Liberia between the government and the two rebel group, namely Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL).

Massa Henries, one of the youth who participated in the anti-Taylor protest last week in Monrovia and was part of the cheering crowd, told IRIN: "Now we are relieved, this is just the beginning [of US involvement]".

Since hostilities between the government, LURD and MODEL intensified in Liberia last month, calls have increased for a US-led intervention force to be deployed to enforce a 17 June ceasefire signed between the warring factions in Accra, Ghana. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has proposed to contribute 3,000 troops to such a force.

Washington is however yet to decide whether to send a force to Liberia, a country founded by its freed slaves in 1847. President George Bush insists that Liberian President Charles Taylor must leave Liberia first. Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo Sunday traveled to Monrovia and discussed an offer of asylum in Nigeria.

At a news conference with Obasanjo, Taylor said he was willing to go to Nigeria. Without saying when he would leave Monrovia, he however demanded that US-led peacekeepers be sent to the country before he leaves to avoid chaos and confusion.

Meanwhile the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) on Friday repatriated a first group of 304 Sierra Leonean refugees from strife-torn Liberia to Freetown, Sierra Leone. They are among thousands of refugees who have asked to be evacuated, UNHCR said.

"The UNHCR-chartered MV Overbeck arrived in Monrovia at dawn Friday, docked a few hours later, and then took on board 304 Sierra Leonean refugees before setting off at 16:15 GMT on the 30-hour voyage to Freetown," UNHCR said.

"Assuming the current ceasefire holds, the Overbeck will shuttle every four days [to ferry] thousands of refugees home. There were some 15,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in camps around Monrovia before the latest round of fighting, and at least 5,000 have so far indicated a desire to go home."

Meanwhile calm continued to reign in Monrovia, following a truce between the fighting groups. UNHCR said some shops and supermarkets had reopened. One bank which operates a money transfer service opened its doors on Monday, allowing many Liberians to receive cash from their relatives abroad.

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The material contained in this article is from IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post any item on this site, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All graphics and Images on this site may not be re-produced without the express permission of the original owner.

All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2003

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