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Bush Sends 'Assessment' Team to Liberia - 2003-07-04

The White House says it is encouraged by reports that Liberian President Charles Taylor has agreed to step-down, after the deployment of an international peacekeeping force. President Bush is sending an "assessment team" to the region but has still not decided whether to commit U.S. troops to Liberia.

White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer says reports that Mr. Taylor has said he would resign are "an encouraging sign." Speaking on the sidelines of a presidential speech marking U.S. Independence Day, Mr. Fleischer said the Liberian leader must back-up his words with action.

"The president has called for Charles Taylor to leave Liberia, so that peace and stability can take root," he explained. " If this report of Charles Taylor leaving is true, the president would be encouraged by it, but it is important that it is more than words. It has to be deeds. He needs to leave, so that peace can be achieved."

Mr. Fleischer says the president is sending a military assessment team to West Africa to work with regional leaders and U-N officials to see what is needed to sustain a Liberian cease-fire.

Just days before his first trip to Africa, President Bush is under increasing pressure to commit U.S. troops to a peacekeeping force for Liberia.

Bush administration officials are divided over the risks of such an operation, with defense officials this week presenting the president with options ranging from doing nothing to deploying thousands of troops.

Mr. Taylor's resignation is one of the conditions President Bush set for sending troops. Mr. Fleischer says the president is still considering all his options, and will be helped by information gathered by the Pentagon assessment team.

"The president has still not made a decision yet about whether or not he will send troops to Liberia to help maintain stability," he said. " This is an important matter and a careful matter that he will review thoroughly. He has not made a determination at this time. And he is not going to be guided by an artificial timetable in making as important a decision as sending America's forces abroad."

Mr. Fleischer says the military is already preparing for a possible deployment to West Africa so that, if the president does decide to send troops, they will be ready.

Mr. Fleischer says Secretary of State Colin Powell is involved in talks to persuade Mr. Taylor to resign and figure out where he will go once he does.

The Liberian leader initially agreed to step down as part of a regional cease-fire plan, but backed-out of that deal, in part, because he is facing war crimes charges for his involvement in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Mr. Taylor has rejected an initial offer of asylum from Nigeria and is reportedly holding out for a deal that includes dropping the war crimes indictment. U.S. officials say those charges are not negotiable.