Bush bullish on Aids and trade, but resists appeal from Liberia

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The Independent Online

Wrapping up his rapid-fire tour of Africa in Nigeria yesterday, President George Bush said he had still not decided whether to send US troops to Liberia despite repeated appeals from Western friends and regional leaders.

Although Mr Bush stressed Aids and trade during his five-country, five-day visit, the deployment of a strong US force in the war-racked nation is seen as a concrete test of his newfound commitment to Africa.

"I told the President we'd be active," Mr Bush said after talks with Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo. "The definition of that will be when we understand all the parameters." A 32-strong US military assessment team, currently touring camps, hospitals, ports and airstrips around Monrovia, is partly deciding those parameters. Major Phil Spangler said he had been shocked by the humanitarian situation. Security was his "greatest concern", he said.

"Really, it's not for us to bring large quantities [of aid] here ... it's to make the environment safe." But it remains highly uncertain whether the US will rely on its own forces, or those of Liberia's African neighbours - which are currently mustering some 1,500 troops - to impose peace by themselves.

Mr Bush repeated a demand that Liberia's embattled President, Charles Taylor, step down immediately. Mr Taylor has accepted an offer of asylum in Nigeria but refuses to say when he will go. Under torrential rains he held a small rally for party faithful in central Monrovia yesterday.

Boisterous supporters danced the conga in the rain, chanting "You shall stay" and "You may not understand him but he is a miracle god". His armed bodyguards, some in dinner suits, held AK-47s while keeping watching over a pair of sleek Mercedes limousines.

On the streets outside, ordinary Liberians continued to pay the price of his destructive six-year rule. Since his election in 1997 Liberia's economy has crumbled to dust, war has raged and his supporters have ignited violence in neighbouring countries.

Hundreds of thousands were forced into camps like the Voice of America compound 10 miles away, where residents were eating frogs to survive. Under the shadow of the crumbling US building, Edward William held a saucepan filled with frogs fished from a nearby swamp on sale for 5p each.

"It's so hard to find anything else with protein," explained Guweh Dakannah. "We boil, peel, take out the mess and then eat with salt and pepper."

International aid agencies have not distributed food in the VOA camp for five months. Expatriate UN staff have been evacuated from Liberia and the handful of remaining agencies fear gunmen will steal any donated food. The refugee camp mostly emptied after the last wave of fighting. Those remaining said they were at risk of rape, murder and pillage at the hands of the boy-militia under Mr Taylor's control.

One man lifted his shirt to show wounds where he had been beaten senseless with a rifle butt the night before. "America and us have been friends for a very long time. Now is our hour of need," said Mr Dakannah.

Then a volley of gunshots went off, from the direction of a checkpoint manned by teenage male fighters, one of them wearing a woman's wig.

Aid workers say a robust US deployment is urgently required. "Intervention on humanitarian grounds makes sense. For once the US could be doing something useful, and save tens of thousands of lives," said Magnus Wolfe Murray of the British agency Merlin.

Little is known of Mr Taylor's Guinean-backed rebel enemy, the Liberians United for the Restoration of Democracy. Like Mr Taylor's forces, they are accused of myriad human rights abuses.

President Taylor warns of chaos if he leaves immediately, and even his critics agree. A sudden departure would "create a vacuum and mean big trouble" warned Fr James Lee, a 79-year-old Northern Irish missionary.

One of Mr Bush's greatest fears is a repeat of the 1993 Somalia disaster, when the deaths of 18 soldiers prompted a humiliating retreat. But on Monrovia's Somalia Drive, a bustling road leading towards the rebel-held north, residents said he had nothing to fear.

"This is Liberia, we love Americans," said Lord Benjamin, a 25-year-old student refugee. "In Somalia the citizens were against the marines. But we want them to come."