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Civil War in Liberia Spreads to U.S. Embassy; Troops Deployed

By Jonathan C. Randal
The Washington Post
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone

As unbridled looting spread through Monrovia, armed Liberian marauders broke into the grounds of the U.S. Embassy residence there today but were driven back in a brief exchange of gunfire with U.S. special forces.

The clash, reported by a European diplomat who witnessed it and confirmed by U.S. officials in Washington, marked the first direct involvement by American soldiers in the street violence and anarchy that have overwhelmed the Liberian capital in the last six days. At the same time, U.S. troops began escorting American civilians to safety from the homes and other buildings around the city where they have sought refuge from the shooting and banditry.

The gun battle around the residence caused no casualties among the American defenders, and Ambassador William Milam was not inside at the time, U.S. officials said. But it dramatized the accelerating descent into chaos on Monrovia's streets, where armed youths from a hodgepodge of tribal militias have engaged in a wave of pillage and robbery without apparent opposition from their chiefs - or even from the primarily Nigerian West African peace force assigned to keep order.

The Clinton administration ordered the amphibious assault ship USS Guam and the destroyer USS Connolly, accompanied by three support ships, to leave the Adriatic Sea and steam toward the coast of West Africa. The ships, which will take about 10 days to arrive off Liberia, carry about 1,500 Marines, a Pentagon spokesman said.

"We're planning for a contingency in a worst case," a senior U.S. officer said in Washington.

The European diplomat, who spoke in a telephone interview from Monrovia, said the shooting incident at the embassy residence took place about 3 p.m., climaxing hours of looting at many U.N. and international aid offices in the Mamba Point neighborhood facing the Atlantic Ocean. U.N. spokeswoman Sylvana Foa told the Associated Press that buildings used by UNICEF and the U.N. Development Program were looted, along with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees motor pool.

Mobs broke down the gates at U.N. headquarters in Monrovia and communications went dead, she added, but staff members were reported safe at the U.S. Embassy compound.

The embassy residence sits in a walled compound near, but separate from, the walled compound of the main embassy buildings. The American soldiers involved in the incident were among a contingent of more than 100 flown in by U.S. Air Force MH-53J Pave Low helicopters from neighboring Sierra Leone to bolster the small Marine Corps embassy guard since an operation began Tuesday to evacuate the estimated 470 U.S. nationals and other foreigners from the Liberian capital.

The armed helicopters briefly resumed daylight evacuations from Monrovia, meanwhile, using sites outside the embassy compound for the first time. Daylight flights had been suspended Wednesday after four rocket-propelled grenades were fired at rescue craft.

So far Americans have accounted for about 200 of the 728 foreign nationals flown to safety here in Freetown, about 235 miles to the north. Many Americans have been unable or unwilling to risk traveling the Monrovia streets to reach the U.S. Embassy helipad. As a result, a heavily armed team headed by the embassy security chief escorted a group of Americans to the port area Thursday, getting them in place for a pickup there instead of at the embassy.

Across the sprawling Liberian capital, American missionaries, professionals and businessmen were reported cut off in often widely separated compounds. One group of up to 100 missionaries and their dependents was said to holed up at ELWA, a Christian radio station with powerful transmitters in Liberia.

The daylight flight by two helicopters first stopped at the compound of a retired American general in another part of the capital. He had faxed the Monrovia embassy suggesting that landing at his property would be less dangerous than flying in and out of the embassy itself, according to Maj. Lewis Boone, a military spokesman in Freetown.

Thirty-eight Americans were picked up at his compound and at another compound that once housed now-abandoned Voice of America radio transmitters, Boone said. The helicopters subsequently loaded 44 additional passengers at the embassy before flying back to Freetown without incident.

Looking worn and in some cases shocked by their experience, the evacuees were quickly transported by Air Force C-130 Hercules cargo planes to Dakar, capital of Senegal.