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U.S. Marines Kill 3 Gunmen in Liberia

May 01, 1996|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — At least three Liberian gunmen were killed by Marine guards Tuesday when they attacked the U.S. Embassy compound as factional fighting and lawlessness swept the Liberian capital, Monrovia, after the breakdown of a 10-day-old cease-fire, U.S. officials reported.

The Pentagon said unidentified Liberian assailants fired on the embassy on three occasions, drawing return fire from the Marines. An official said three to six gunmen were killed and that at least one other was wounded.

One of the Marine defenders was slightly injured, possibly by debris kicked up by a bullet or by an expelled shell casing, the Pentagon said. He did not require medical treatment.

Assistant Secretary of State George Moose, the Clinton administration's senior Africa expert, was in the embassy, but there is no indication that he was the target of the attack, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said.

Moose arrived in Liberia earlier Tuesday to attempt to reinvigorate the West African peacekeeping force that was demoralized by the factional fighting that preceded the brief cease-fire.

"We don't believe that this represents any kind of a concerted attempt to challenge the position of the United States," Burns said. "These were simply individuals who foolishly decided to fire on the U.S. Embassy."

Fighting in Liberia's bloody 6-year-old civil war resumed Monday when a cease-fire, imposed April 19, collapsed.

"This is a very serious violation of the cease-fire, and the United States is quite concerned about it," Burns said. "This is a very grave incident. And we call upon all parties--all factions, all militia members--in Monrovia not only to cease and desist fighting in general but to be very careful not to attack Americans and not to attack the United States Embassy."

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said the exchange took place at "Post 7," a guard station near the ambassador's residence.

"We don't know what [the attackers] were aiming at," Bacon said. "Fire came in, and it was returned. There's been fairly intense fighting going on . . . between the factions, but this is the first exchange of fire involving the Marines."

Most American civilians and all but a skeleton staff at the embassy were evacuated earlier. However, a force of Marines remains in the vicinity, 276 of them posted at the embassy and another 2,939 on ships off the coast.

The Pentagon has insisted that the only purpose of the Marine deployment is to protect U.S. citizens and property, although the force would seem to be much larger than necessary for that.

Moose is in Monrovia to confer with factional leaders and with officials of the West African peacekeeping force that virtually disintegrated when fighting flared early in April. The U.S. government has offered $30 million in increased aid to the peacekeeping force provided it demonstrates a new effectiveness.

"We have, in effect, issued a challenge grant to the West African peacekeeping force," Burns said. "If they can prove to us and the rest of the international community that they can be an effective . . . force for peace in Liberia, then we will come to their assistance with badly needed financial aid and with other assistance.

"Assistant Secretary Moose is going to continue with his diplomatic mission," Burns added. "We're not going to be deterred by this type of violence."

News agency reports from Monrovia said lengthening lines of Liberian civilians have fled their homes to escape the renewed fighting.

Most appeared to be headed for the Greystone compound, a sprawling residential complex for U.S. Embassy employees, Associated Press reported. About 20,000 people sought refuge in that complex at the height of the earlier conflict.

An estimated 150,000 people have died since the Liberian civil war broke out in December 1989. At the time, rebels sought to depose President Samuel K. Doe, who was later captured and killed in 1990. But since Doe's death, a number of factions have continued a bloody struggle for power.

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