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Liberia offers U.S. troops unfamiliar combatants

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 27, 2003

DAKAR, Senegal - Any U.S. peacekeeping force sent to Liberia would face a volatile mix of combatants - from drunken government soldiers paid by the perks of looting and raping to angel-eyed child rebels toting AK-47s.

The United States has not sent a peace mission to Africa since its 1993 nightmare in Somalia. But despite the dangers, ventures by the British in Africa and by others elsewhere have shown how such efforts can work.

Three U.S. warships were bound Saturday for Liberia, carrying troops ordered up by President Bush to support a pending West African peacekeeping mission.

The deployment came as more deadly shelling hit Liberia's refugee-crowded capital Monrovia, the target of a weeklong offensive by rebels trying to oust President Charles Taylor, a Boston-educated, Libyan-trained warlord. The downtown is the last stronghold of Taylor's government.

A mortar shell slammed through the roof of a church sheltering thousands of refugees near the rebel-held port Saturday, killing at least three refugees and wounding about 55.

"Every day they're talking, "Troops will come, troops will come,' " Konah Macgee, whose uncle was among those killed at the Great Refuge Temple, said of the promised multinational peacekeepers. "And no one comes."

Bush has stopped short of saying American forces would participate directly in the mission to a nation founded in 1849 by freed American slaves.

For American troops, some dangers and difficulties are clear.

For one, the Geneva Conventions hold very little sway in Liberia. Fourteen years of near-perpetual conflict under Taylor have raised warfare among Liberians to the height of viciousness.

Each side is accustomed to executing captured enemies. Taylor's side is accused of often torturing them first.

Routinely, combatants in Liberia hack off slain rivals' body parts as magic totems or simply to terrify.

The might of American Marines is widely respected here, making it less likely that warring sides would mete out similar treatment to any captured Americans. The strategic effect of an atrocity would be slight - but the damage to public opinion in the United States likely would be massive.

Since the Somalia mission in 1993, the image of a dead, naked U.S. soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu almost on its own has kept American troops out of African peace missions. The soldier was one of 18 killed during an October 1993 raid.

Another, larger difficulty: Few fighters in Liberia show much interest in keeping their word.

Taylor repeatedly has made and broken peace pledges since launching Liberia into war in 1989. Most recently, he has hedged on promises to step down - something Bush has called for as a condition for sending troops. Taylor made another such pledge Saturday.

"Let nobody have any concern about, "Will President Taylor step down?' " Taylor told a prayer rally in Monrovia's leading sports stadium. "I will step down."

Rebels, likewise, are pressing their two-month offensive on Monrovia despite nearly daily cease-fire declarations.

To ensure any truce sticks, peacekeepers need to prove they can hold each side to its pledges and make any return to fighting counterproductive.

In other dilemmas, American soldiers might find themselves facing an armed attacker the same age as a young son or nephew - and facing the question of whether to shoot.

Both sides use child fighters. Taylor pioneered the formal recruitment of Small Boys Units during the 1989-1996 civil war.

However, peacekeepers - equipped with superior arms, armor, tactics and discipline - could find their jobs surprisingly easy.

Both sides in Liberia are ragtag, men and boys in blue jeans handed assault rifles or rocket launchers and told to go fight. Despite claims otherwise, each side numbers only a few thousand.

Both sides also are poorly trained and often ill-disciplined. Taylor's fighters lately suffer from deteriorating morale, with their leader cornered in Liberia's capital and teetering on the edge of falling from power.

Although Taylor has helped flood the region with small firearms, his forces are comparatively lightly equipped. Battling in the capital, they haul a single, prized antiaircraft gun in and out of skirmishes in the back of a pickup truck.

Red-eyed and beer-breathed, many government soldiers begin their days with a shot of whiskey. They pass their nights looting homes of the citizenry they claim to be protecting - greatly undermining any lingering public support for them.

Rebel forces appear only slightly better disciplined. Guinea, which has an American military-backed armed forces training program, allegedly is supporting them, but it is unclear whether rebel firepower has been bolstered for the assault on the capital.

Despite failures, the United States has had some success keeping peace.

Almost forgotten, American forces have been deployed to Egypt's Sinai since Israel's 1982 withdrawal.

Any proof that peace missions can work even in the most atrocious wars is next door in Sierra Leone.

There, rebels backed by Taylor waged a 10-year terror campaign and hacked off limbs, lips and ears - even of babies. A U.N.-backed tribunal has indicted him.

The rebels, fighting to win Sierra Leone's diamond fields, repeatedly proved themselves unreliable in any peace deal - breaking accords by launching new assaults on the capital.

The war-ending solution was decisive armed action by the United Nations, former colonial ruler Britain and neighboring Guinea.

Guinea, angry at seeing its stability repeatedly threatened by Taylor-fueled troubles, sent helicopter gunships across the border. Air attacks on Sierra Leone villages slaughtered countless innocents, but routed rebels as well.

Britain, likewise, moved in forcefully. Deploying a contingent believed to be up to 2,000, Britain responded to the capture of some of its troops by killing dozens, if not hundreds, of rebels in a single sweep. It was a turning point.

Among Sierra Leone's people, meanwhile, the British gained respect for their restraint and discipline toward civilians.

Britain displayed its might by sending helicopter gunships over the capital and the country, convincing a technologically awed rebel force that resistance was futile.

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