The Pentagon has enhanced its intelligence-gathering capabilities in Liberia by quietly dispatching two surveillance aircraft to West Africa.
Pentagon officials tell VOA that two Navy P3C Orion surveillance aircraft have been sent to Senegal and are now conducting intelligence-gathering flights over Liberia.
These officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the four-engine turboprop aircraft are collecting information to support the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force in Liberia.
They say that information could include aerial photographs detailing rebel movements outside of the capital, Monrovia, and pinpointing possible humanitarian problems.
However the sources decline to share any intelligence information gathered by the aircraft so far. They cannot confirm or deny fresh reports of the movement of thousands of civilians fleeing renewed fighting in the interior.
Liberia's caretaker President Moses Blah has called for a speedy deployment of West African peacekeepers beyond Monrovia and into the interior to end the fighting.
But with only some 15 hundred peacekeeping troops in Liberia, deployments will not be extended outside the capital until reinforcements arrive from Ghana, Mali and Senegal.
Pentagon sources say meanwhile that the commander of the U.S. Joint Task Force for Liberia has asked for White House approval to release details from intelligence flights pertaining to humanitarian problems.
But the sources say so far no such permission has been granted, apparently because the Bush administration does not want to appear to be taking the lead in Liberia, a task it has deferred to the West African regional group ECOWAS.
There are currently only some 150 U.S. military personnel on the ground in Liberia.
However Pentagon sources say the overall number of forces in the region is now close to five thousand. Most of them, about 4,200, are aboard three amphibious assault ships off the Liberian coast, including a Marine quick reaction force capable of supporting West African peacekeepers if they encounter trouble.
But the sources reveal the number of American military personnel has risen to nearly 300 in Senegal, including crews and support teams for the two Orion surveillance planes and three C-130 transport aircraft. Another one hundred are based in Sierra Leone to support operations by three U.S. military helicopters.
Additional small military assessment teams are in Benin, Ghana, Mali and Togo. The sources say these teams are coordinating future West African support for the peacekeeping operation.