NAIROBI, Kenya — A Liberian rebel leader seized 14 or 15 foreign hostages Monday, including an American, making good on his threat to use foreign nationals as bait to provoke international intervention in Liberia's seven-month civil war.
Prince Johnson, who commands troops that split off in February from a larger rebel force commanded by former government minister Charles Taylor, had threatened Saturday to begin seizing Americans, Britons, Lebanese and Indians. He pledged not to harm them.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler disclosed the hostage taking without identifying any of the victims. She said they were taken from the "African Hotel" in Monrovia--presumably Hotel Africa on the city's outskirts--and said there was no indication that any of them have been harmed.
Johnson's move came a day after his threat led the United States to send a detachment of Marines into Monrovia to evacuate any of the 370 Americans and other foreign nationals there who wanted to leave.
By late Monday, the Defense Department said, 62 Americans, 8 Liberians, 2 Italians, 1 Canadian and a French priest had been taken out to the U.S. helicopter carrier Saipan.
The State Department said the foreign hostages were reported to have been taken to Johnson's headquarters. Tutwiler declined to speculate on possible American responses to the action.
She reported "sporadic" gunfire in Monrovia on Monday, but said no U.S. Marines have fired their weapons or been fired on by any Liberian groups.
Also Monday, five West African countries agreed in principle to send a peacekeeping force into Liberia to halt the fighting among the two rebel forces and government troops loyal to President Samuel K. Doe.
Adhering to the agreement were the governments of Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ghana and Gambia. Nigeria, the region's military powerhouse, which has had ships stationed off the coast of Liberia for several days, is expected to provide the greater part of the peacekeeping force.
It would be the first such move ever by African countries in the internal affairs of a neighbor not threatening war. In 1979, Tanzanian President Julius K. Nyerere sent troops into Uganda to overthrow Idi Amin and reinstall Milton Obote as president, but by then Amin's troops had already invaded Tanzania twice and bombed a Tanzanian town.
Intervention in the internal affairs of neighbors is specifically barred by the charter of the 26-year-old Organization of African Unity. In this case, however, the OAU has endorsed the peacekeeping effort. Its secretary general, Salim Ahmed Salim, was present at Monday's meeting in Banjul, Gambia.
Salim told reporters in Banjul that the participants were still discussing logistics and terms late Monday. Dawda Jawara, president of Gambia and chairman of the 16-member Economic Conference of West African States, to which all the participating countries belong, said the action was being taken to end a tribal conflict that has turned Liberia into "a slaughterhouse."
"We can no longer afford to let the situation deteriorate further," he said. "We the leaders of West Africa have an important moral duty to stand up to the task."
Reports from Banjul indicated that the intervention will be aimed at imposing a cease-fire and installing an interim government, with free elections to follow later. Doe, Taylor and Johnson would be barred from participating.
Of the three, Taylor is the only leader who has overtly opposed an outside peacekeeping force. In the past, he has pledged to fight any invading troops; on Monday, his National Patriotic Front said it would organize demonstrations in four Liberian towns against the intervention.
Although the Liberian civil war is largely a tribal conflict without any specific economic or political elements, it has had serious destabilizing effects on several neighbors. Guinea, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone have taken in as many as 200,000 refugees from the fighting, which pits Doe's Krahn tribesmen against members of the Gio and Mano tribes backing the rebels.
The crisis began last Christmas Eve when Taylor, a former member of Doe's Cabinet who had fallen out with the president and later received arms and training from Libya, invaded from Ivory Coast with a small force of 200 men.
When Doe responded with the brutal repression and massacre of Gio and Mano people, Taylor's support grew. Thousands of Liberians, mostly civilians, have died as the two sides have traded atrocities.
Since reaching Monrovia, which his and Johnson's forces have so far failed to seize, Taylor has declared himself head of an interim government but has given no indication of planning to restore democratic rule. Many Liberians believe that the present mayhem would continue without outside intervention, because neither Taylor nor Doe has any genuine popular support within the country.
Staff writer Maura Reynolds, in Washington, contributed to this report.