The United States is sending a senior diplomat to West Africa to join in talks on ending the fighting in Liberia. It is also warning Liberian rebels against seizing the country's second largest city.
The dispatch to west Africa of Assistant Secretary of State Walter Kansteiner marks a step-up of the Bush administration's diplomatic involvement in the Liberia crisis as it continues to consider its role in a Liberian peacekeeping operation.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher announced the departure of Mr. Kansteiner, the administration's top African affairs expert, but would provide no details of his itinerary.
The move came as U.S. diplomats and military officials were conferring with counterparts from Nigeria and other members of the regional grouping ECOWAS in the Ghanaian capital Accra on the long-awaited peacekeeping operation in Liberia.
The United States has been calling for the departure of Liberian President Charles Taylor and an end to the current round of fighting between government forces and rebels so that peacekeepers can enter the country.
Briefing reporters, Mr. Boucher delivered a warning to one of the rebel factions not to complicate the situation by seizing the port city of Buchanan southeast of Monrovia:
"We've urged the Movement for Democracy in Liberia in the strongest terms to avoid worsening the situation and especially not to attack the port of Buchanan," said the spokesman. "Such action would undermine all the efforts being made to deploy an international force to stabilize the situation and efforts to reach a peace agreement in Accra. We will hold this group responsible for its actions."
Mr. Boucher also called on government forces and the main rebel group LURD, or Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, to accept a cease-fire proposal by the U.S. Ambassador in Monrovia John Blaney that would make the Poe River near the capital a cease-fire line.
President George Bush late last week ordered a naval force carrying more than 2,000 U.S. Marines to waters off Liberia to offer still-unspecified support for a West African-led peacekeeping force.
But Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz reiterated Sunday that any American role in the force would depend on the West Africans deploying first, and on President Taylor leaving the country.