Bush may send peace-keeping force to Liberia if Taylor quits

The United States appeared close to ordering the dispatch to Liberia of a peace-keeping force of up to 2,000 troops last night after sustained international pressure.

But a final decision on the mission and its exact shape depend on a deal to secure the departure of the country's President, Charles Taylor.

Meetings between the security advisers to US President George Bush, and Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, continued yesterday. But the removal of President Taylor, who faces war crimes charges for his role in the civil war in Sierra Leone, is pivotal.

President Bush said yesterday: "I am in the process of gathering the information necessary to make a rational decision as to how to ... enforce the ceasefire in place. What I am thinking about is how to bring some stability to the country in a way that will be effective, and there's no question step one of any effective policy, whether we are involved or not, is for Charles Taylor to leave."

The Liberian emergency has reached a climax at a delicate moment for Mr Bush, on the eve of his first trip to Africa, in which he is expected to highlight his Aids initiative, which is a symbol of his concern for the continent. But such professions will ring hollow if the US is seen to be neglecting the plight of a country founded in 1947 by freed American slaves, and with which Washington has always had close ties.

The most likely outcome is that between 500 and 1,000 US troops will be sent to spearhead a multinational force of 3,000 or more, drawn from the ECOWAS group of West African states led by Nigeria, and operating under the aegis of the UN.

But even these scaled-back plans have been contested by the Pentagon, which is ever wary of being drawn into peacekeeping operations. It is especially worried by the risk of overstretch in the war against terror, now that 150,000 troops are tied down in Iraq, and 10,000 more in Afghanistan.

Mr Taylor has declared himself ready to leave Liberia in three months if the war crimes charges, brought by the UN-backed court in Sierra Leone, are dropped. That seems too long for America. But which country would take him as an exile, if he agreed to step down sooner, is far from clear.

Britain, France and the UN have been urging Washington to intervene. Why, it is asked, if Britain and France have sent forces to help their former colonies of Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast, should the US not help Liberia? The conflicts in all three countries are also linked, with rebel groups operating between the states.

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