US Forces to Leave

Vanguard (Lagos), 3 September 2003

Washington—United States forces off the coast of Liberia might be returning home in a few weeks, a top US general said Monday, saying that West African peacekeepers have succeeded in stabilizing the war-torn west African country. Air Force General Charles Wald, deputy commander of the US European Command, said no final decision has been made on the withdrawal of a US task force that has backed up the peacekeeping mission from amphibious assault ships offshore. Some 3,000 marines are aboard the ships.

“There is speculation they could come home in a few weeks,” he said at a breakfast with defense reporters here. Wald said the departure of president Charles Taylor and the arrival of a Nigerian-led force of peacekeepers from Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had—“knock on wood”—stabilized the situation for now.

Food and other humanitarian aid is flowing in the country and the incidence of cholera is “the lowest it's been in years,” he said. “There are some issues out in the outer bush, as they call it, where the force is going to have to get out and stabilize it,” he said.

“But generally speaking it's stabilized.” Asked whether international forces should have gone in sooner, Wald said: “If you're the one person who got killed, it's always too late.” But he said the West Africans had gained confidence in the course of carrying out the mission. “They were a little bit concerned, and they took on the mission in a mature way and they have handled it really well,” he said.

He said the US commander on the scene initially worried that General Festus Okonkwo was too timid to restore order, but proved forceful in compelling the withdrawal of rebel forces from the Monrovia port area. “The guy was a Jekyll and Hyde,” he said of Okonkwo. “The guy went from being the most timid guy in the world to being mad dog, (a) bulldog. He laid down the law and told these guys either you leave or it's going to be over.”