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U.S. Force Evacuates 1,200 from Sierra Leone

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 2, 1997 – U.S. forces evacuated 1,200 people May 30 and 31 from Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, after a military coup left the security situation in the West African nation uncertain, DoD officials said.

About 400 evacuees were American, and the rest were third country nationals from about 40 countries, said Navy Capt. Greg Ertel, commander, Amphibious Squadron 4, from aboard the USS Kearsarge.

CH-46 and CH-53 helicopters carried evacuees to the Kearsarge about 20 miles offshore. Rebel forces made no attempt to disrupt the evacuation, officials said.

Marine Col. Sam Helland, commander, Joint Task Force and 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, said the mission was an example of America's ability to project power afloat. "Our noncombatant operation today demonstrated the flexibility and the tremendous capability of the Marine expeditionary unit/amphibious readiness group team," Helland said.

State Department officials requested the evacuation after rebel forces began moving into the city. The rebels did not target Americans, but U.S. officials were concerned about the risk from sporadic gunfire, a DoD spokesman said. The American embassy sustained considerable damage during fighting May 25, officials said.

U.S. European Command deployed the Kearsarge with about 1,305 sailors and the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, N.C., with about 1,200 Marines to the area for the operation dubbed Noble Obelisk, DoD officials said. The ship arrived off the coast of Sierra Leone May 29.

An early morning launch the following morning first sent in a Marine security force to secure the landing zone. The ship's helicopter crews then flew more than 85 sorties to get everyone out, including a woman in labor, ship officials said.

"The training of this Navy/Marine Corps team that has been together six months practicing these types of operations is part of what made the operation go so smoothly today," Ertel said.

Fitting another 900 people on board meant moving evacuees into berthing areas normally occupied by enlisted, and sending sailors and Marines to spend the night in the hangar bay and other parts of the ship, ship officials said.

Evacuees later moved from the Kearsarge to Conakry, Guinea, about 100 miles north/northwest of Freetown, for transportation to final destinations.

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