American Troops Set to Assist West African Force in Liberia
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 13, 2003 Roughly 200 more American troops could move into the West African nation of Liberia in coming days if rebel forces keep their pledge to move out of the country's capital city. About 100 American service members are currently in Liberia.
Rebel forces from the group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy have pledged to move out of Monrovia's main port Aug. 14. If that goes as scheduled, military forces from the Economic Community of West African States are expected to request help from American forces working for Joint Task Force Liberia, Pentagon officials said today.
About 2,500 U.S. Marines are standing by aboard the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group off the coast of Liberia. But officials said relatively few of these forces are likely to be called to assist the West African forces, called ECOMIL for "ECOWAS Mission in Liberia."
"Joint Task Force Liberia is in place to assist ECOMIL forces to achieve a stable environment so that humanitarian assistance can be provided to the people of Liberia and also to facilitate the transition to a U.N.-led international peacekeeping operation," Air Force Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz said in a Pentagon press briefing today.
Schwartz, operations director for the Joint Staff, explained that such assistance is likely to come in the form of a 150-member ground-based quick reaction force and a port assessment by American military engineers and Navy SEAL divers.
ECOMIL currently has a 746-man-strong battalion of Nigerian soldiers on the ground in Liberia. These forces are mainly staged at Monrovia's airport. A second Nigerian battalion is expected to start arriving in country at the end of this week, Schwartz said.
When the second Nigerian battalion is in place, the general explained, the American QRF is expected to move from a ground-based staging area to a sea-based posture.
Even during the short period this QRF is expected to be in Liberia, their role will be very limited. The QRF is not there in a security role, Schwartz stressed. They're merely standing by to provide "a reaction capability if something unexpected occurs with regard to an ECOMIL unit, and only to stabilize the tactical situation so that (the ECOMIL forces) can restart their mission."
The first order of business for the ECOMIL troops will be to secure the port to facilitate safe transit of humanitarian goods. A U.N. World Food Program ship carrying fuel oil and food aid is in the region, Schwartz said. Any assistance the Americans provide will solely be to ensure the success of ECOMIL's mission, Acting Assistant Defense Secretary for Public Affairs Lawrence Di Rita said during the briefing with Schwartz.
"The objective is to let the Nigerian forces continue with stabilizing key areas of the city that are needed for the reinstatement of humanitarian operations," Di Rita said.
American forces will likely provide an aerial escort for any large-scale movement of ECOMIL forces from the city's airport to the port. Such an escort could come in the form of fixed-wing aircraft, such as Marine AV-8B Harriers, or helicopters, including UH-1N Hueys and AH-1W Super Cobras, Schwartz said.
The general also noted it's likely that ECOMIL units moving to the port would include U.S. Marines in a liaison capacity. Also, U.S. engineers will conduct a port assessment, and SEALS have already begun a preliminary survey of obstacles in the port's waterway.