NAIROBI, Kenya — A detachment of 225 U.S. Marines swept into Liberia's embattled capital of Monrovia early Sunday to evacuate Americans after a rebel leader threatened to arrest foreigners in an attempt to provoke international intervention in the nation's civil war.
But the Marines, who flew in from four U.S. ships that have been stationed offshore for months, were under orders not to actively intercede in the fighting among government forces loyal to President Samuel K. Doe and two separate rebel groups, according to U.S. officials in Washington.
The rescue mission came on the eve of an African summit scheduled for today to discuss the creation of a multinational African military force to bring peace to Liberia, where civil war broke out seven months ago.
The session was scheduled for Banjul, Gambia, under pressure from Nigeria, the country with the largest and best-trained military in West Africa. Nigerian officials said earlier this weekend that they might send a peacekeeping force themselves if no other solution arises to the sustained tribal conflict in Liberia.
The American rescue party encountered no resistance when it reached Liberian soil about 9 a.m. local time. By late in the day, 59 American citizens had been flown to safety on the Saipan, a helicopter assault ship. From there the evacuees are expected to be taken to Freetown, the capital of neighboring Sierra Leone.
All U.S. citizens in Liberia had been warned of the danger of remaining there and asked to depart, but many declined, Bush Administration officials said. With the evacuation of 59, about 311 remained at the end of the day Sunday.
As the operation got under way, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said it was intended to evacuate all of the Americans who wished to leave.
Dubbed "Operation Sharp Edge," the evacuation saw Marines in combat gear swept ashore aboard 23 Sea Knight, Sea Stallion and Cobra helicopters to put the Americans aboard. According to the Pentagon, the move was ordered after a formal request from U.S. Ambassador Peter de Vos.
The forces were sent in to "secure the (U.S.) Embassy, accomplish the rescue operation, secure and remove Americans from two communications sites (and) remain as long as necessary to assure the security" of the remaining embassy staff, Fitzwater said.
The Pentagon said that, in addition to the embassy, Americans were evacuated from a "Voice of America site" five miles north of the compound and from a "telecommunications site" six miles to the south.
Administration sources, who declined to be identified, said the stations actually served to transmit information from all of Africa to CIA headquarters outside Washington and to assist submarine navigation in the Atlantic.
Although a skeleton staff will remain at the U.S. Embassy, sources said the communications sites will be abandoned for the duration of the fighting in Liberia, and there is no plan to leave Marines to protect them.
Late Sunday, after nightfall in Liberia, a Pentagon spokesman said the situation was "in a sense secured," and attention had turned to delivering the Americans to Freetown.
"The Marines will remain in Liberia as long as necessary to ensure the safety of U.S. citizens in that country," Fitzwater told reporters at the White House on Sunday morning. The U.S. action, he added, "does not indicate or constitute any intention on the part of the U.S. government to intervene militarily in the Liberian conflict." But the Marines understood they were "in a battle situation" and were to use any necessary force to complete the evacuation, he said.
Thirty-five key members of Congress were notified of the move about 1 a.m. PDT Sunday, an hour before Marines reinforcements went ashore. Word of the evacuation also was passed to the embattled Liberian president, who has been offered U.S. assistance in leaving the country, and to the two rebel factions.
"The purpose of this operation," Fitzwater said, "is to safeguard lives, to draw down the number of Americans at the embassy to minimum staff and to provide additional security for those who remain."
About 70 U.S. diplomats and 300 other American citizens have remained in the afflicted city since it was cut off from most substantial contact with the outside world about a month ago. In that time, Monrovia's power and water supplies have been cut and food supplies have dwindled.
Meanwhile, government and rebel troops have ranged about the city skirmishing with each other and engaging in wholesale mayhem. One week ago, a company evidently of government troops invaded a city church where thousands of civilians had sought shelter and opened fire, killing at least 270 people and possibly as many as 600.
U.S. officials had said that the 2,100 Marines on the four American ships off the Liberian coast would take no action unless there is a specific threat to American citizens or properties in Monrovia.