[This briefing occurs via satellite comm link between members of the Pentagon Press Corps and officers aboard the USS Kearsarge, at sea about 20 miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. Joining Colonel Helland in this briefing is Captain Greg Ertel, USN, Commander, Amphibious Squadron 4.]
Colonel Helland: This is the third evacuation that the Marines and sailors of the USS Kearsarge have conducted in the last five days in Freetown, Sierra Leone. It started off this morning at approximately 0930 and is still going on as we speak, as we transfer evacuees into Guinea, Africa.
It was characterized this morning by negotiations by the diplomatic folks, fearing that we add a semi-permissive environment as we went ashore to evacuate the civilians out of the hostile region of the town near the Aberdeen Peninsula.
The evacuation itself took about five hours and we moved approximately 1,250 nationalities out of the (inaudible) itself. That's basically what we did today.
Q: Did you encounter any difficulties as you did this?
A: Initially, there was some apprehension because the negotiations done at the diplomatic level were kind of precarious because of the type of individuals we were facing on the ground. The R-U-F or the RUF forces are characterized basically as 13, 14, 15, 16-year-olds armed with automatic weapons and RPGs, and had no command and control whatsoever, and more or less freelancers, people from the hills, somewhat akin to years ago the Viet Cong or something to that effect. The rebels or hill people, as it would be.
Q: Colonel, I understand that when the Marines came in, the Apaches came in, that these guns fell silent, these rebels did not fire on the aircraft at all. I would ask also, did you have any help from the Nigerians?
A: There was no help from the Nigerians today. The Marine Corps Cobras did not receive any fire. It was basically a benign environment by the time we got in there. It was more or less curiosity than it was anything else.
Q: Can you break it down by gender, by nationality? Can you give us some idea who you were assisting?
A: We're still in the process of processing the evacuees at this time, but I can tell you about where we're at. We took about 1,254 people aboard. Of that 1,254, we've got about three-fourths of them processed. We have 38 U.S. nationals at this point, about 200 U.K., and then the remainder are from 21 different other countries.
Q: Do you have a lot of children aboard?
A: We have a tremendous amount of children aboard. I wouldn't even hazard a guess, but it's in the hundreds.
Q: What happened to that woman who you picked up the other day who was pregnant and in labor?
A: She was evacuated to Guinea.
Q: Did she have her child on the ship before she was evacuated?
A: No, ma'am.
Q: You said the operation is continuing. How much longer? And is this third evacuation going to finish it?
A: The State Department probably will determine whether this will finish it or not. It's continuing as we move the evacuees into Guinea, and we hope to complete that sometime about mid-afternoon tomorrow.
Q: What's your state of fuel and supplies on board after steaming around so long and having all those people on board?
A: Our fuel is not a problem. Being a forward deployed unit, we routinely operate for long periods of time at sea, and have logistics ships to come and meet us with fuel and provisions. Our next replenishment was scheduled on the 6th of June. That schedule has not changed. That was the original schedule. We are experiencing a few shortages. We ran short of diapers at one point, but we were able to get those in. We're a self-sustaining force, so as we run short of something we take it on while we're at sea. I think this is our 46th or 47th day at sea.
Q: You said initially that the evacuation took five hours. What would you say is the biggest hurdle in the evacuation today? And how would you describe the environment you went into?
A:: I think the biggest hurdle was making a decision when the situation was exactly right for us to go in, when the evacuees are prepared to come out and we were prepared to get them so that they would be safe at all times, and that the force protection issue was in place basically to ensure that nobody would be hurt and no Marines would be injured.
Q: What made the situation exactly right, though, at this time?
A: It was a combination of the diplomatic and the political work done by the people in the State Department and the embassies ashore that helped us, in particular the British who helped out tremendously to negotiate a more or less ceasefire or a calm in the city between the opposing forces or the opposing factions.
Q: So yesterday the State Department said there was a lot of fighting going on outside of the Mammy Yoko Hotel, and a lot of fires. I guess from what you said, the British quelled that somewhat.
A: Yes, ma'am. I would not say they quelled it. I would say they negotiated a ceasefire on some level so that the forces would disburse and stay calm while we evacuated Americans. As you know, when the Navy and the Marines come in to do an evacuation such as this, our goal is to make sure that the people are safe and that we recover them in a safe manner, and it's not a hostile environment.
Captain Ertel: I'd like to add one thing to that. The first two evacuations were conducted at the Mammy Yoko Hotel. This evacuation today was not. This evacuation today was conducted about three miles south at a beach called Lumley Beach. Just because we have the flexibility to go almost anywhere in the world with the shoreline, we were able to move those evacuees down to that location and remove us from where the highest threat was.
Q: Did any of the people you evacuate, was anybody injured?
A: Yes, they were. I've spoken to the doctors. The major problem we faced today was dehydration and anxiety. There were some people that had some shrapnel wounds and some old gunshot wounds, none of which occurred today, but were sustained in fighting yesterday and previous.
Q: Were you fired on in any way during the evac?
Colonel Helland: No, we were not.
Q: Were any of the injured in bad condition? Were any of the shrapnel or gunshot wounds or dehydration, or any other problems, were any of them serious?
Captain Ertel: No, they were not. Most of them were superficial wounds.
Q: Were any of those injured Americans?
A: None were Americans.
Q: Thank you.