African Leaders Ask for 2,000 U.S. Troops in Liberia Prior to Bush Visit

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Pressure built Monday on the United States to contribute to a peacekeeping force in Liberia (search), with West African leaders asking for 2,000 U.S. troops -- and seeking a response from President Bush (search) before his July visit to the continent.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) said the Bush administration and State Department were "looking at a range of options" in Liberia but had made no decision on whether to supply troops.

Rumsfeld did not reveal his personal view on whether U.S. forces should be deployed, though he seemed to suggest that African nations could handle it largely by themselves, noting that U.S. forces have trained Nigerian and other African armies for regional peacekeeping operations.

"They've been well-trained. We've helped equip them, and to the extent they've been deployed I've been told they've handled themselves well," he said.

Bush is scheduled to make a five-day visit to Africa starting July 7. West African leaders said they hope for a commitment on U.S. troops before his arrival.

U.N. Security Council ambassadors and West African leaders were in Ghana on the third stop of a West African mission, which has focused on assembling a 5,000-strong force to separate rebel forces and those of Liberian President Charles Taylor.

Rebels have waged a three-year campaign to unseat Taylor, an indicted U.N. war-crimes suspect blamed for much of the conflict that has roiled West Africa in recent years.

France, Britain, U.N. diplomats and both sides in Liberia's fighting have pushed for an American role in a peace force for the country, which was founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century and a longtime regional U.S. ally and trade partner.

African nations have offered 3,000 troops to the force, with the rest to come from the United States, diplomats said on condition of anonymity.

U.N. Ambassador Martin Chungong Ayafor of Cameroon, a Security Council member, suggested a U.S.-backed mission could win goodwill for the United States.

"This could be a good face-saving measure for them, and show that they intervene for the sake of peace and security," Ayafor said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has also suggested the United States take a leadership role in a peacekeeping force. "Of course that is a sovereign decision for them to take -- but all eyes are on them," Annan said in Geneva.

At U.N. headquarters Monday, U.S. deputy ambassador James Cunningham told the Security Council during closed-door consultations that the United States wanted three conditions met for further discussion about the nature of a peacekeeping force.

According to diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Cunningham said Washington would insist on Taylor giving up power, on a political agreement among the parties and international support for a peace process. The council decided to continue discussion after the mission it dispatched returns from the region and West African leaders meet over the weekend.

Liberia's rebels joined the calls Monday for U.S. military involvement.

"The Americans can lead the force, and the West Africans can play a supporting role," Charles Bennie, a rebel envoy, said in Ghana.

The rebel official promised his side would not target Americans troops if they are sent to enforce a truce. A previous cease-fire unraveled last week.

In Monrovia, a small crowd rallied outside the U.S. Embassy on Monday to appeal for American military action.

The few dozen picketers were a fraction of the thousands of panicked Liberians who surrounded the U.S. Embassy and nearby compound last week, seeking protection from rockets and mortars as rebels laid siege to the capital.

Western authorities, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Monday that two mortar shells hit the U.S. Embassy compound during the siege -- contradicting previous American statements that explosives hit only within the walls of the U.S. residential compound across the street.

The end of the siege left doctors to treat hundreds of wounded and victims of disease sweeping the capital, which is crowded with refugees who have filled schools, homes and a sports stadium and have inadequate supplies of water.

People used wheelbarrows to haul cholera victims to the main John F. Kennedy hospital, where workers have logged at least 600 cases of the disease.