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US ready to send troops to Liberia

President George Bush leaves Washington tomorrow for a five-nation tour of Africa that the White House hopes will highlight a new aid package to fight Aids and strengthen ties with governments achieving economic and democratic reform. However, fighting in Liberia threatens to obscure the message.

The trip marks only the third time that a US president has visited sub-Saharan Africa. And it is only the second time that Mr Bush will have set foot on the continent. But the trip comes at an awkward time as Washington struggles to decide whether to send troops to Liberia to help avert further bloodshed.

The signs this weekend are that Mr Bush will indeed authorise deploying 1,000 to 2,000 American troops to lead a peacekeeping mission to the capital, Monrovia, which will otherwise be made up of soldiers from the 15-country Economic Community of West African States, or Ecowas.

Mr Bush confirmed yesterday that this was under consideration. "We are talking to Ecowas countries right now to determine what the nature of a peacekeeping force might look like," he told CNN. Officials added that US military experts were also on their way to the region to assess the situation there.

There is concern that a failure to respond now to the Liberia crisis will sap credibility from the President's visit to Africa. The country, which was founded by freed American slaves in 1822, is in chaos as rebels opposed to President Charles Taylor continue to encircle Monrovia. Fighting over the last four years has driven a third of Liberia's three million people from their homes.

But US officials have strongly signalled that a commitment of US troops will be contingent on President Taylor agreeing first to leave office. Nigeria has tentatively offered him asylum. This weekend, President Taylor repeated a promise to stand down, but not until after peacekeepers are in place.

Speaking to African reporters, Mr Bush outlined what he said was America's national interest in helping African governments fight Aids and instigate reforms. The President, who will visit Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Kenya and Nigeria, also plans to press for co-operation on fighting terrorism.

"It's in our national interest that Africa becomes a prosperous place, it's in our interest that people will continue to fight terror together," he said during a round-table interview with reporters. "It's in our interest that when we find suffering, we deal with it."

Critics continue to contend that US interests in Africa have to do with military co-operation and oil. It was reported yesterday that the Pentagon is pushing for access to facilities in both sub-Saharan and northern Africa. But Mr Bush will emphasise a recently passed package of $15bn to help Africa fight Aids over the next five years - an initiative that has won praise from health and development organisations.

The President has also stressed stirring awareness in America of the Aids crisis, which has killed about 15 million in Africa. "It's important for our fellow citizens to realise that while we live a relatively luxurious life throughout our society, there is a pandemic taking place that's destroying a lot of people, ruining families," he said. "I want to use this trip to say, 'Here's an example of what is possible.'"

Slavery will take centre-stage on Tuesday when Mr Bush opens his tour on Gorée Island, off the coast of Senegal, which was the departing point for thousands of Africans before they were shipped to the US for lives of servitude. Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, last week called slavery America's "birth defect". She gave no indication, however, that Mr Bush would use the occasion to apologise for slavery.