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CNN BREAKING NEWS

U.S. Embassy in Liberia Under Fire

Aired July 21, 2003 - 11:01   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Our stop story comes to us overseas in Liberia, Monrovia, Liberia to be specific. The U.S. embassy compound there coming under mortar fire, and as we heard reports moments ago from our Jeff Koinange, who was there inside the compound, mortar shells have actually hit there and caused some damage. We're also getting reports of two deaths there as well. Jeff was able to get a phone light out to us. I believe we have him on the phone once again.
Jeff, are you there?

JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I sure am, Leon. How are you doing?

HARRIS: What's the latest?

KOINANGE: I can tell you, Leon, the embassy has admitted they did take a direct hit on the commissary. Nobody has been injured here in the U.S. embassy compound. However, they do have an adjacent building that belongs to the U.S. embassy. Two local Liberian workers in that building have been injured.

We also hear that mortar fire has been raining down on the entire city of Monrovia. One hit a building, unconfirmed reports say 18 people dead, another five dead or so unconfirmed.

We can tell you, as we speak, Leon, Liberians -- and they do this every now and then when there is this kind of incident -- they are piling up dead bodies right outside the U.S. embassy. It happened a month ago when a mortar shell hit a compound across. Now they're piling up bodies just to show that this is the situation, and they're literally pleading for help by piling up these dead bodies outside the U.S. embassy, Leon. It's an upsetting situation.

HARRIS: Well, Jeff, is it clear whether or not these are rebel forces that are doing this, or whether it's government forces there? And are they specifically targeting civilians here?

KOINANGE: Well, Leon, as you know, there's more than 100,000 people, most of them displaced in the city of over 1 million people. And these mortars are flying all over the place. They're definitely targeting, you know, whatever the building, whether they hit a building, and we also understand the local JFK Hospital has been hit. They're being launched, and being launched haphazardly. They are hitting innocent civilians. Some are falling in the ocean. They are falling all over the place. We don't know who is launching, unconfirmed reports, no one's saying anything. The government is silent, the rebels are silent. No one wants to own up to this terrible tragedy right now -- Leon.

HARRIS: What an incredible picture of chaos in western Africa. Jeff Koinange is there inside the U.S. embassy compound.

And, Jeff, please, be careful, and next time you're able to get a phone line out, please give us a call back and give us an update, particularly if anything does happen there in the meantime.

Let's go now to Barbara Starr who's standing by at the Pentagon. The word coming from the Pentagon earlier this morning in regard to Liberia had been that more Marines were going to be sent in to protect that embassy compound, and it appears, though, Barbara, there is very good reason for that.

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Leon.

The situation, as Jeff just reported, deteriorating by the hour in Monrovia.

Now more than 40 heavily U.S. armed Marines did land in the capital early today. They have gone to the embassy to reinforce security there, bringing to about 100 Marines now guarding the U.S. embassy compound, even as it comes under mortar attack.

We can also tell you that earlier today, once those helicopters landed the Marines when they took off, there were 23 Americans on board, leaving the embassy compound. These are American citizens who wanted to be evacuated from the area.

Now, officials don't have a very good handle, they say, and this is very typical, on exactly how many American citizens are in Monrovia, are in the Liberia area, how many might want to be evacuated. Their rough estimate at the moment is there may be about 200 Americans that they would evacuate if the formal order comes.

At this point, there is no formal request from the U.S. ambassador for a military evacuation of American citizens. But we are told that those Marines at the embassy now are, quote, "prepared for any contingency" and, in fact, that they are there to, quote, "assist with the orderly departure" of U.S. citizens if it does come to that.

All of this now complicating the situation for the Bush administration, because of course, with no peace to keep, there will be no U.S. peacekeepers. About 2,000 Marines on board a three-ship task force headed by the Marine ship Iwo Jima are moving into the Mediterranean towards Liberia, but it's not clear that those Marines will ever go ashore, especially if the situation remains so violent and so unsettled. What they are working towards here, what they remain trying to work out is a West African-led peacekeeping force, with heavy U.S. military assistance, in communications, command and control, transportation and logistics.

But until this situation calms down, there's no indication that any outside peacekeeping force will go in -- Leon.

HARRIS: Very interesting. It will be very interesting to see who is actually doing the shelling now, because it has been said quite often that coming from the government there that Charles Taylor would not leave unless peacekeepers were there on the ground, and this kind of shelling of the U.S. embassy means there will be no peacekeeping there anytime soon.

STARR: That's right, Leon. And this is providing a real dilemma for the U.S. military at the moment. As you have said, they do not have a good idea who is doing the shelling today. They don't know where these attacks are coming from, so this uncertainty and this violence is making them very unsettled.

HARRIS: And the tragedy continues there in Liberia. Thank you, Barbara. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Barbara will stay on top of the story and bring us any developments.

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