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U.S. Evacuates Americans from Sierra Leone

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 31, 1997 – U.S. forces began evacuating American citizens and third country nationals from Sierra Leone May 30 after a military coup left the security situation in the West African nation uncertain.

DoD officials expected to evacuate 250 to 300 of the 400 Americans in the African capital of Freetown by helicopters to the USS Kearsarge positioned about 20 miles offshore, a DoD spokesman said. Plans called for evacuees to remain aboard for a few days before being moved to Conakry, Guinea, about 100 miles north/northwest of Freetown, for transportation to final destinations, DoD officials said.

U.S. State Department officials condemned the coup, which overthrew Sierra Leone's first democratically elected government in three decades. U.S. officials called on those claiming power in of Freetown to return authority promptly to the country's elected leadership and parliament.

While rebel groups have not targeted Americans, a DoD spokesman said, sporadic gunfire in the city could put them at risk. Two stray rounds of rocket-propelled grenade struck the American Embassy in Freetown causing some structural damage to the building, DoD officials said.

About 700 Nigerian security troops arrived in Freetown May 27 to supplement 600 already there as part of the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group, DoD officials said. The Nigerian troops' mission is to secure government installations and provide stability, the DoD spokesman said.

U.S. European Command deployed the USS Kearsarge with about 1,305 sailors and the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, 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. It had been positioned off the coast of Zaire, recently renamed the Republic of Congo, and was on its way to the Mediterranean when DoD responded to the request for an evacuation.

An advance team of four Marines went ashore to coordinate the evacuation with embassy personnel. An 11-man U.S. Special Forces team from Fort Bragg's (N.C.) 3rd Special Forces Group, already in Freetown conducting leadership training, is also helping embassy staff and the Navy-Marine team, a DoD spokesman said.

Navy Capt. Greg Ertel, commander of Amphibious Squadron 4, said the Kearsarge carries four CH-53 Sea Stallions and eight CH-46 Sea Knight transport helicopters. The Navy-Marine task force is also equipped with four AH-1 Cobra and six Harrier aircraft.

"The number we use will depend on the number of evacuees that they have ready to be picked up ashore," Ertel said from aboard ship during a satellite-linked Pentagon press conference prior to the evacuation's start. "I anticipate initially that will be a small number and then will build in momentum, but we think we have sufficient helicopter assets to bring everybody out."

Once on board, ship officials will process, feed and billet evacuees and take care of any other needs, Ertel said. "We probably have some of the best medical facilities afloat other than the hospital ships Comfort or Mercy," he said.

The Kearsarge is home based in Norfolk, Va., and the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit is out of Camp Lejeune, N.C.

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