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U.S. Forces in Liberia Blocked By Troops Loyal to Government

By Somni Sengupta

the New York Times -- MONROVIA, Liberia

Liberian government troops loyal to President Charles Taylor blocked a U.S. military contingent that was heading toward a refugee camp on the outskirts of this city Tuesday and forced the team to turn around.

The reason for the blockade was not immediately apparent to members of the U.S. convoy, which included U.S. Marines and military specialists who had arrived here on Monday to inspect the worsening humanitarian situation amid a deepening rebel conflict.

Elsewhere in Monrovia, the capital of this West African nation, the U.S. military team encountered chaotic street scenes as thousands of residents mobbed the convoy and chanted slogans denouncing Taylor.

“No more Taylor!” the protesters shouted. “We want George Bush!” Some people tried to scramble on top of the vehicles traveling in the convoy. A boy was injured in the crush and was pulled into a U.S. Embassy vehicle for treatment.

Shortly after midday, members of a Liberian antiterror unit fired guns into the air to disperse the crowd. The commander of the Liberian troops ordered his men to pursue the protesters. “Beat them!” he yelled, as the mob scattered, the soldiers gave chase and the U.S. convoy sped away.

Last week, Bush called for Taylor’s resignation as part of the solution to an intractable rebel conflict.

In comments to reporters Tuesday in Senegal, part of his five-day tour of Africa, Bush repeated his demand that Taylor step down.

“Charles Taylor must leave,” the president said in Dakar, where he arrived early Tuesday.

Taylor has said that he plans to go into exile but that he will not leave office until an international peacekeeping force has arrived to assume control of the country. Taylor said on Sunday that he had accepted an offer of asylum in Nigeria, where he would presumably be protected from prosecution on the war crimes charges, since Nigeria has no law compelling it to extradite anyone to a war crimes tribunal.

The White House has been considering whether to send U.S. troops as part of a peacekeeping force, but Bush said on Tuesday that his administration was still trying to decide what role the United States would play in Liberia.

“We’re in the process of determining what is necessary to maintain the cease-fire and to allow for a peaceful transfer of power,” he told reporters.

Bush’s comments came a day after Taylor, in an interview with The New York Times, accused the United States of supporting Liberian rebels and pressed Washington to prove its commitment to Liberia by sending peacekeepers. Taylor also added a surprising coda to his promise to step down, calling his exile a brief “cooling-off period” before a return to Liberian politics.

Asked about his legacy, Taylor, who was indicted on 17 counts of crimes against humanity for “bearing the greatest responsibility” for mutilations and rapes in neighboring Sierra Leone, said he wanted, above all, to be remembered as “the man that brought peace to Liberia.”

“I think it’s expedient at this time for Charles Taylor to sacrifice,” he said of his departure. He said he was prepared to leave in the “shortest possible time” after international troops arrived. Otherwise, he said, there would be bedlam.

“If we high-tailed out of here without an international force, don’t you think there would be a free-for-all?” Taylor wondered aloud.