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21 Marines Sent Into Liberia at Ambassador's Request

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 21, 2003 – A team of 21 U.S. Marines arrived in Monrovia today to add a level of security to the U.S. Embassy in Liberia's capital, Defense officials in the Pentagon said.

Civil war in the West African nation has increased security concerns. The newly arrived Marines, deployed from Rota, Spain, are part of a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team. They join a 35-member Humanitarian Assistance Support Team that U.S. European Command deployed July 7. Another 20 Marines are staged in neighboring Sierra Leone awaiting further orders.

DoD officials said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved the deployment July 20 after the U.S. ambassador to Liberia requested assistance.

The FAST members arrived in Monrovia via helicopter and were greeted by mortar fire in the vicinity of the U.S. Embassy.

Navy Lt. Dan Hetlage, a DoD spokesman, said officials aren't sure if the mortars were aimed at the embassy or if the Marines were caught in the crossfire of local warring factions. He also noted U.S. Embassy personnel had received no mandatory evacuation order.

First reports from the ground indicate two local contract security guards and an American reporter have been hurt, Hetlage said. Defense officials routinely caution that first reports are often wrong.

President Bush spoke briefly on the situation during a joint press conference with the prime minister of Italy from his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

"We're concerned about our people in Liberia," Bush said, in response to a reporter's question. "We're continuing to monitor the situation very closely."

The president said July 14 that any American military involvement would be in the form of assistance to the Economic Community of West African States. He reiterated today that he is waiting for ECOWAS to put together a peacekeeping force "that I have said we'd be willing to help move into Liberia."

Just fewer than 200 U.S. service members are currently serving in western Africa. Three HH-60 Pavehawk helicopters from Naval Air Station Keflavik, Iceland, and the personnel needed to support them were sent to Sierra Leone July 13. An MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft was sent to Senegal from its Air Force base in Mildenhall, England. Hetlage explained these aircraft are standing by should an emergency evacuation of U.S. military personnel be called for.

On a related note, Rumsfeld signed an order July 19 to move the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group and its embarked 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) from the Red Sea near Djibouti, where it has been supporting Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, into the Mediterranean Sea. The group should reach the Med in "a few days," Hetlage said, and once there would be able to reach the coast of Liberia in seven to 10 days if called upon.

The lieutenant described moving the ships as "a prudent deployment." "We're putting them in position in case they're needed," he said.

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