Declaring that it is "absolutely essential" to accelerate the deployment of an international force to Liberia, Secretary-General Kofi Annan offered Tuesday to transport a Nigerian battalion and spelled out plans to quickly bring in reinforcements.
In a letter to the UN Security Council, Annan expressed deep concern "at the dramatic deterioration of the situation on the ground" and the delay in starting the deployment of a 1,500-strong West African force that had been expected to be in Liberia by mid-August.
Disputes over funding the emergency mission are partly to blame for the slow deployment of the force from the Economic Community of West African States, known as ECOWAS. Debt-strapped Nigeria has offered to lead the force but says it needs help with what it expects to be a multimillion-dollar daily tab.
US President George W. Bush on Friday ordered troops to take up position off Liberia's Atlantic coast in readiness for any peace mission -- but he has not authorized any action and fighting between forces loyal to Liberian President Charles Taylor and rebels trying to oust him has intensified.
"It is therefore essential to accelerate the deployment of the ECOWAS `vanguard force' to Monrovia," Annan said in his letter.
"The government of Nigeria has indicated its willingness to begin deploying its two battalions to Liberia immediately, provided the necessary logistical support is made available by the international community," he said.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said Tuesday after meeting British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London that peacekeeping troops might arrive in "a few days."
To speed their arrival, Annan said the UN peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone is ready to transport one Nigerian battalion that is being transferred to Liberia.
He said the US force off the coast of Liberia was prepared to support the ECOWAS deployment.
If necessary, and if the Security Council approves, Annan said the UN peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone also has the capacity to sustain the two Nigerian battalions "for a limited period in Liberia."
He appealed to the council to urgently consider giving the Sierra Leone mission a mandate to use its resources "to provide full support for the deployment and sustainment of the ECOWAS `vanguard force."'
The priority task for the West African force -- which would also include 250 troops apiece from Ghana, Mali and Senegal -- would be to stabilize the situation in the besieged Liberian capital, Monrovia, after Taylor leaves, Annan said.
But the ECOWAS troops will need to be reinforced "in a timely manner" by a larger multinational force, and he said soldiers from the country leading it should arrive immediately after Taylor's departure.
Annan did not mention the US, but European and African leaders have actively campaigned to get US troops to lead an international effort to help end the conflict.
The secretary-general stressed, however, that the multinational force "would be relieved by a United Nations peacekeeping operation within the shortest possible time."
He told the council he has ordered the UN secretariat to start planning immediately for a new peacekeeping mission in Liberia. It was essential for the council to give this force "a robust mandate ... to ensure that it has a credible deterrence capability," he said.