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September 20, 2017

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U.S. Marines in Liberia say Somalia memories have faded

By EDWARD HARRIS

Scorched by a merciless Liberian sun, hundreds of U.S. Marines patrol the capital's war-battered port and international airport, saying the horrors of America's last African peacekeeping effort are for them now little more than Hollywood drama.

At Monrovia's port on Friday, about 40 Marines trod over bullet casings or escaped the sun's glare in the shade of looted, bullet-pocked buildings — vacated a day earlier after some of the heaviest fighting in the two month siege of Monrovia, where rebels pressed home a three-year fight against newly resigned President Charles Taylor.

About 200 Marines landed in Liberia on Thursday, charged with aiding an eventual 3,250-person West African peace force meant to end 14 years of near-constant strife in Liberia.

Rebels handed over Monrovia's port to West African soldiers and pulled out of the hungry city, allowing humanitarian aid to begin flowing — a central mission for the U.S. peacekeepers. Hundreds of trapped civilians were killed in the fighting between the rebels and Taylor's forces.

The United States had not sent a peace mission to Africa since its 1993 nightmare in Somalia, when 18 U.S. troops were killed by Somali fighters.

"We've all seen the movie," Marine Capt. James Jarvis said of "Black Hawk Down," a graphic blockbuster depicting scenes from the Somalian effort.

The battle deaths, and real-life images of the corpse of a U.S. soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, prompted lingering U.S. reluctance to get involved in the continent's crises, including the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

"Somalia and Liberia are two entirely different countries on opposite sides of the continent — and we have historic links with Liberia," said Jarvis, spokesman for the 23rd Expeditionary Unit.

He was one of about 200 Marines at the international airport in Liberia, a nation founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves.

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"I don't think we see the same kinds of hostile elements that you had in Mogadishu," said Jarvis even as boy soldiers with AK-47s raced pickup trucks in the streets outside the port and decaying airport on Friday.

Rebel and government officials have said they welcome all peacekeepers — West African or American — and promised the foreign troops wouldn't be harmed.

Jarvis said members of the rapid-reaction force at the airport weren't likely to leave the area unless the West African soldiers came under fire or found other "trouble."

Marines peered at the airstrip from the sights of two machine-gun mounted vehicles outside the former airport catering center where the U.S. force is billeted.

Many of the roughly 2,000 Marines aboard three ships bobbing off Monrovia's shores had seen "Black Hawk Down," said Cpl. Brad Kolb at Monrovia's port, heavily looted in recent weeks.

But the scenes of crashing helicopters and enraged, heavily armed mobs aren't an anchor on their spirits, said Kolb, 21.

"Everybody's treated us friendly. No problems," he said after meeting curious Liberians a day earlier while laying concertina-wire around a helicopter landing strip.

Kolb said he expected foot patrols inside the port and not the kind of aggressive operation that led to the deadly firefight in the streets of Mogadishu. "We're all on a perimeter-type deal," he said.

Liberians, who have clamored for American help since the rebel siege of Monrovia began in early June, said they welcomed the Marines — but wished they would have come sooner.

"If they came earlier, maybe it wouldn't be like this: no food, no medicine, no shelter," said Sely Williams, one of tens of thousands of refugees from the fighting living in a derelict sports stadium outside Monrovia.

"Everything is so hard. See what we're eating," said the 38-year old woman, showing a hand cupping a few grains of a dry, high-protein biscuit.

U.S. President George W. Bush pinned the deployment of any American troops to Liberia on the resignation of Taylor — an ex-warlord who sparked Liberia's crises with a 1989-1996 insurgency before being elected president in 1997.

Rebels took up arms against him in 1999. He stepped down Monday and left for exile in Nigeria.

"We watched things unfold on television like everyone else," said Jarvis, the public-affairs officer.

"We came ashore when we were told to come ashore," he said. "But we're glad to be here."

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