MONROVIA, Liberia – A team of U.S. military experts arrived in Liberia (search) on Monday to assess whether to deploy troops as part of an intervention force that would restore order to a nation torn by civil war.
A blue and white wide-bodied helicopter swept in over Monrovia's (search) Atlantic coastline to alight on a helipad within the heavily guarded walls of the U.S. Embassy compound.
About a dozen soldiers in combat garb, some carrying assault rifles, jumped out to be met by staffers from the U.S. Embassy in Liberia — a west African nation founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves.
Leaders from the United Nations, Europe — and the Liberian people — have increased pressure on President Bush to send U.S. troops to enforce an oft-violated cease-fire between forces loyal to Liberian President Charles Taylor (search) and rebels fighting for three years to oust him. West African nations have offered 3,000 troops and have suggested that the United States contribute another 2,000.
And with his capital Monrovia surrounded by rebels, Taylor is under intense international pressure to step down. Bush said Saturday he would "not take 'no' for an answer."
Taylor, in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, reiterated his appeal for the United States to contribute troops to the force, saying their presence was a condition for his departure in order to prevent "chaos and anarchy."
"They owe it to us," Taylor said.
"If one U.S. Marine stood on Broad Street and blew a whistle, 'time out,' then there would be peace," Taylor said, referring to Monrovia's main commercial thoroughfare. "When they arrive, bingo. There's an exit."
"I would be out of here in a jiffy," he said.
However, in a separate interview with Associated Press Television News, he said: "My departure depends on the presence of an international force, not the presence or absence of the Americans."
Taylor, beset by rebels and indicted by a U.N.-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone, has repeatedly promised to step down. On Sunday, he accepted an offer of asylum for Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo — but did not specify when he would leave.
Taylor insisted that he alone would decide on the timing of his withdrawal from power and criticized Bush for continuing to press for his resignation after he promised last month to step down.
However, he said U.S. troops would be welcome in Liberia, and need not fear a repeat of the military operation in Somalia that eventually killed 18 Americans.
Navy Capt. Roger Coldiron, leader of the 32-person U.S. team, told reporters that his mission is to "assess the security environment" in the country as well as study the humanitarian needs of its 3 million people — suffering greatly from more than a decade of civil strife.
"There is a security component," Coldiron added. "We want to be sure that whomever comes in is safe on the ground."
A decision on whether U.S. soldiers will join an intervention force shouldn't be expected Monday, U.S. Ambassador John W. Blaney told reporters. Coldiron said the mission would take as long as needed before making any recommendation.
Meanwhile, Bush was heading to Africa Monday for visits to five nations — including regional power Nigeria.
The Bush administration showed little enthusiasm for Taylor's acceptance of Nigeria's asylum offer.
White House spokesman Jimmy Orr said: "What the president has said is Mr. Taylor needs to leave and leave soon. He needs to leave so peace can be restored."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday welcomed Taylor's decision to resign and leave Liberia.
"The secretary-general sees this development as a significant turning point as Liberia strives to move from war to peace," said a statement issued by Annan's spokesman. It gave no indication when the Liberian leader would leave.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo met Taylor at Monrovia's airport to offer him asylum.
"I thank my big brother for coming," Taylor said. "He has extended an invitation and we have accepted an invitation."
But, Taylor said, "it is not unreasonable to request that there be an orderly exit from power." He said U.S. participation in an international peacekeeping force planned for Liberia was "crucial in every way."
Both Taylor and Obasanjo would not say when the Liberian president would step down, but Obasanjo said "we believe that it will not take place in the near future."
Both warned that too hasty a departure could spark new fighting in the West African nation, where hundreds were killed in a failed rebel push into the capital last month.
Obasanjo, whose nation led a peacekeeping contingent during Liberia's 1989-96 civil war, said "international support" was required for a Liberian peacekeeping mission.
Rebel officials said they had no confidence Taylor would follow through and leave Liberia.
"I hope this time around Mr. Taylor will act on his words," said a rebel leader, Kabineh Ja'neh in Accra, Ghana. "Far too often he has failed to honor what he says. We don't trust him. Not at all."
The visit by Obasanjo to bring the asylum offer in person underlined the urgency of international appeals for the Liberian leader to leave.
Bush is scheduled to land Tuesday in Senegal, one largely peaceful West African nation that hasn't seen the ill effects of years of warmaking by Taylor.
Nearly one third of Liberia's 3 million people have been forced from their homes by fighting since rebels took up arms against Taylor in 1999.