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US Marine Group Heads for Liberia - 2003-07-21

A three-ship U.S. amphibious assault group carrying more than 2,000 Marines is moving into the Mediterranean from the Horn of Africa. It could be the first step in deploying the unit to Liberia, if President George W. Bush decides to order U.S. peacekeepers into the strife-torn country.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered the three-ship Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group into the Mediterranean, as fighting escalated in Liberia.

No decision has yet been made on whether to send the group on to West Africa.

But Pentagon officials call the move a precautionary one that could enable the group's 2,300 Marines to reach Liberia more quickly if a presidential decision is made to send in U.S. peacekeepers.

In the meantime, Mr. Rumsfeld has ordered 41 additional military personnel into the Liberian capital, Monrovia, to bolster security at the U.S. embassy.

That team arrived from Spain as the embassy was hit Monday by a mortar shell, while fighting between government forces and rebels raged in the city.

A small U.S. military assessment team had already been in Liberia to evaluate security conditions for a possible peacekeeping operation. A second team has been in Ghana assessing the capabilities of a promised peace force from the West African regional grouping, ECOWAS.

In addition, about 100 U.S. military personnel and four aircraft have been deployed in the region to transport assessment team members or for use in any evacuation operations.

While President Bush has said it may be necessary to send American troops to Liberia, he has also indicated any U.S. deployment will be limited in size and duration.

Marines aboard the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group had been conducting live-fire training exercises in Djibouti when ordered to the Mediterranean. Members of the group participated earlier this year in combat operations in Iraq and two years ago took part in operations in Afghanistan.

In addition to the 2,300 Marines in the Iwo Jima group, more than 2,500 sailors are aboard the group's three vessels.