The United States Monday condemned rebel shelling of the Liberian capital Monrovia as the Bush administration continued to consider the possible dispatch of U.S. peacekeepers to the troubled west African state. Secretary of State Colin Powell conferred again by phone with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The United States has been pressing for the departure of Liberian President Charles Taylor as a key to restoring peace to the country. But it turned its main criticism Monday to the rebels force of LURD, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, who it accused of "reckless and indiscriminate" shelling of Monrovia.
In comments to reporters after shelling incidents in and near the seaside U.S. embassy compound in the capital, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker strongly condemned the rebel group, and urged its members to consider the plight of Monrovia's civilian population and the humanitarian workers trying to alleviate the suffering in the capital.
He noted that the latest violations of the Liberian cease-fire accord were occurring as talks in Ghana on the introduction of a west African peacekeeping force were at an "important decision point." And he warned that LURD was placing its political credibility, and possible role in a new Liberian government, in jeopardy with its offensive:
"It's incumbent upon the parties in Liberia as well to keep their commitments, the commitments they've made to the United States and to the international community, to the neighboring states and abide by the terms of the cease-fire and to operate along standard principles of human rights and diplomatic conventions," he said. "If we're to trust them in the future to participate in the democratic governance of Liberia, we need to be able to see them keep their commitments now."
Mr. Reeker also called on Liberia's neighbors to prevent the flow of weapons and combatants across their borders into Liberia, and specifically mentioned Guinea in that regard.
The comments came against a background of intensive international diplomacy on Liberia including telephone talks for the fourth straight day Monday between Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who has strongly urged a U.S. peacekeeping presence in Liberia to back up a planned force by the west African regional group ECOWAS.
The United States has pledged to support the peacekeeping operation though not necessarily contribute troops on the ground. At his Texas news conference Monday with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, President Bush remained non-committal on the issue of U.S. troops:
"We continue to monitor the situation very closely," he said. "We're working with the United Nations to effect policy necessary to get the cease fire back in place. We are working with ECOWAS to determine when they will be prepared to move in the peacekeeper troops that I have said we'd be willing to help move in to Liberia. We're monitoring the situation very carefully."
The United States did move 41 additional U.S. Marines into Liberia from Spain Monday to help reinforce security at the embassy compound, and a U.S. Navy amphibious group with 2,000 Marines aboard has begun a journey to the waters off Liberia from the Horn of Africa region.
In the day's shelling in Monrovia, a mortar round hit an apartment building in the U-S embassy complex but caused no casualties.
However, another mortar shell killed and wounded several Liberians at the nearby Graystone compound, a currently-unused administrative annex to the U.S. embassy, where several thousand people fleeing the violence have sought refuge.
A Liberian embassy guard and an American journalist running to enter the U.S. mission were wounded by shrapnel. Though criticizing shelling by LURD, State Department spokesman Reeker said it could not be positively determined who fired the mortars in the embassy area.