MONROVIA, Liberia – U.S. military advisers came face to face Wednesday with the dreadful cost of Liberia's war, wading through wards overflowing with wounded -- some nursing bandaged stumps -- in a damaged hospital named for a slain American president.
The United States is considering sending peacekeeping troops to help end the carnage in the country founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves. Other West African nations plan to dispatch 1,000 troops to Liberia (search) within two weeks, negotiators in Ghana said.
At the once-prestigious John F. Kennedy Hospital -- still partially ruined from the 1989-96 civil war -- the wounded were crowded into refurbished wards, some sleeping on mattresses on the floor, their heads, chests and limbs wrapped in bandages.
In one partly abandoned section, the Americans crossed a water-flooded hallway by walking atop benches. The hospital provides the only surgical care in Monrovia (search), and during the most recent fighting, civilians and wounded from both sides were brought in, sometimes still armed.
"At times, it can be almost like death," said the hospital's chief administrator, Beuford Taylor, who is not related to the president. "They have guns, and you don't know if they will use them."
Earlier Wednesday, exuberant Liberian villagers thronged a runway chanting, "We want peace, no more war," when another group of U.S. experts in military fatigues visited a Monrovia airfield to determine if it could be used to bring in relief supplies and other material.
The United States faces mounting international pressure to send in troops to lead a peacekeeping force to enforce a June 17 cease-fire between forces loyal to President Charles Taylor (search) and rebels surrounding the Liberian capital. But Washington is wary of becoming too deeply involved -- especially with American troops already committed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.
President Bush, speaking Wednesday in South Africa, promised to work with the United Nations and African nations to enforce the often-violated cease-fire, and "see to it that Mr. Taylor leaves office so there can be a peaceful transition in Liberia." Bush said he will not overextend U.S. armed forces.
Taylor -- a one-time warlord wanted for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone -- is viewed by international prosecutors, diplomats and some Liberians as the main impediment to peace in the region.
Under the cease-fire, Taylor promised to step down, clearing the way for a transitional government that will oversee fresh elections.
West African nations initially offered 3,000 troops and suggested the United States contribute 2,000. But negotiators meeting in nearby Ghana said Wednesday it would take too long and cost too much to mobilize a force of this size.
The West African bloc known as ECOWAS is proposing to mobilize an initial 1,000 soldiers within two weeks and is asking the United States for 1,500, West African diplomats involved in the talks said on condition of anonymity.
Taylor has urged the United States to send troops. In the past month, he has repeatedly promised -- and failed -- to step down. On Sunday, he accepted an offer of asylum from Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, but on condition that an international force is deployed in Liberia. Many fear Taylor's departure could spark factional violence.
Obasanjo reiterated the asylum offer in an interview with CNN on Wednesday, but warned Taylor would not be allowed to "play politics" from Nigeria.
"We are looking for a way of easing him out," Obasanjo said. "Charles Taylor must be encouraged not to fight with the very last drop of his blood."
Taylor has made it clear he still considers himself in charge of the country where he waged war for seven years as a rebel leader before being elected president in 1997. He now faces an uprising by rebels who include some of his former rivals from the 1989-96 conflict.
The 32-member U.S. team -- including military experts on civilian affairs and a security component -- arrived Monday to assess security conditions in Liberia and humanitarian needs of its 3 million people.
The hospital they visited Wednesday is now treating 185 patients -- half of them civilians, and the rest combatants -- said Raed Aburabi, head of an International Committee of the Red Cross team at the hospital. At the peak of fighting in June, about 400 people were being cared for at the hospital.
In a ward for civilians, most with their legs in traction from shrapnel and gunfire wounds, women and children recounted how they escaped heavy shelling in the capital last month.
Winnie Johnson and her family were hiding in a house near the U.S. Embassy when gunmen burst in and opened fire. Johnson ran out carrying her 3-year-old grandson, Timothy Kanneh, who is now being treated for a bullet wound to the leg. Another grandson, 7-year-old Terry Dennis, was killed by the fighters.
"We want peace," she said.