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U.S. team turned away from refugee camp

Country's president calls incident a 'diplomatic boo-boo'

From Jeff Koinange

Members of the Special Operations Division of the Liberian police fire in the air Tuesday to disperse a jubilant crowd that was following a convoy of U.S. military experts.
Members of the Special Operations Division of the Liberian police fire in the air Tuesday to disperse a jubilant crowd that was following a convoy of U.S. military experts.

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MONROVIA, Liberia (CNN) -- A U.S. assessment team sent to Liberia to gauge the humanitarian and security situation was stopped Tuesday at a roadblock manned by teenage soldiers as it attempted to visit a refugee camp on the outskirts of Monrovia.

The military civil affairs experts, accompanied by a Marine security detail, arrived Monday in Monrovia. Their assessment could lead to a possible deployment of U.S. peacekeeping troops to the war-torn West African nation.

Most of the country's 3.3 million people are starving or sick, and a third are homeless, the result of almost perpetual war since 1989.

Residents of Monrovia had greeted the 32-member convoy with chants of "We want peace, we want peace."

But the convoy encountered opposition on its way to the refugee camp, where 50,000-60,000 people live.

When the convoy came to a government-run checkpoint, Liberian soldiers -- mostly teenagers with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades -- said the U.S. experts did not have permission to pass.

The commander of the checkpoint was asked to check with his superior and did so, but he told the experts they still did not have permission to continue. The convoy then headed back to the U.S. Embassy compound in Monrovia.

Liberian President Charles Taylor told CNN the team was turned back because it had not requested permission to travel. He described the incident as a "diplomatic boo-boo," adding that his government was ready to allow the experts to go anywhere they wanted.

Among the team's missions will be to determine what American troops can do to aid the return of nongovernmental organizations to Liberia.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent a letter Tuesday to the Security Council asking it to take "urgent action" to authorize the return of U.N. relief agencies.

All international staff has been withdrawn from Liberia because of the security situation. One U.N. official declined to say whether the workers would return if a multinational force were not sent.

The official said only that the United Nations would have to assess the security situation.

"We're ready to go in quickly," the official said.

President Bush consulted Tuesday with West African leaders. He has called on Taylor to give up power and leave the country.

"We are in the process of determining what is necessary to maintain the cease-fire and to allow for a peaceful transfer of power, working very closely with ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States]; the president of ECOWAS was with us, the president of Ghana," Bush told reporters during the first leg of his five-nation tour of Africa. (Full story)

In an interview Monday, Taylor said he would honor his pledge to accept asylum in Nigeria only when conditions were right.

"My leaving office is dependent on two factors: one, my willingness to do so, and secondly, the presence of an international force that will stabilize the situation in the country as I depart," Taylor said.

Taylor said he would leave soon after such a force is in place.

"I will then proceed to exercise the invitation granted to me by the president of Nigeria."

Taylor told CNN in an interview Tuesday that he hopes to be able to return to his country down the road as an "elder statesman." (Full story)

Annan said in a statement Monday that he welcomed Taylor's decision to accept an asylum offer from Nigeria. The terms of Nigeria's offer were not disclosed, and no timetable was set.

Half the members of the U.S. assessment team are Marines, and the rest are experts in civil engineering, civil affairs, medicine, water purification, logistics and contracting.

The U.S. team will send its findings to U.S. European Command, the Pentagon and the White House to help the Bush administration decide whether to deploy U.S. troops to Liberia.

Washington could send as many as 2,000 Marines to work with a 3,000-person ECOWAS force, U.S. military officials said. The Marines might be drawn from those on station near the East African nation of Djibouti. (Full story)

Annan said he has appointed as his special representative to Liberia Jacques Klein, a former American general who has handled many U.N. diplomatic duties in the past, including roles in the Balkans.

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