Baptist leaders are calling on the United States to immediately send military forces to Liberia to protect lives of innocent people caught in a civil war.

“It is incumbent on the U.S.A. to support the peace-loving people of Liberia who for so long have been victims of treacherous and tyrannical governments,” Denton Lotz, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, wrote in an open letter to President Bush on Tuesday. “Please Mr. President, now is the time to support our friends in Liberia. Any delay would bring further bloodshed, destruction and misery to the Liberian people.”

Lotz said Baptist leaders in the West African nation “urgently request you to send military forces to protect the lives of innocent people.”

The Bush administration is facing increased criticism for its delay in sending peacekeeping troops to Liberia. President Bush has said the U.S. might send troops as part of an international effort, but he is waiting for other nations to take the lead. Bush has also said he would commit American troops only if Liberian President Charles Taylor steps down. The administration has been vague on when or how many troops might eventually become involved.

Critics say the White House is moving too slowly.

“I don’t understand what they’re waiting for,” Susan E. Rice, assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Clinton administration, said in the New York Times. She decried “dithering and delaying” by the Bush administration, after raising expectations for U.S. involvement, as “bordering on the criminally irresponsible.”

Many Liberians believe that Monday’s bloodletting in the capital city of Monrovia, the worst fighting in months, could have been avoided if international forces had been sent already. One of two rebel groups seeking to oust Taylor from power announced a unilateral cease-fire Tuesday but continued fighting, gaining control of a key bridge providing access to the nation’s capital Wednesday.

On Monday, angry Liberians lined up bodies outside the U.S. Embassy, which is being protected by U.S. Marines, to protest the delay in sending troops. Hundreds of people have been killed in five days of fighting in Monrovia, which has been cut off from food and water since Saturday.

In his letter to Bush, Lotz said failure by the U.S. to act immediately “will incur further wrath of the African people, and particularly those of Liberia, against the inability of the U.S. government to work for peace and stability in Africa.”

Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States said Wednesday they would send a vanguard force of at least 1,300 Nigerian troops to Liberia to restore order. The general in charge of political and military affairs for the regional group said two battalions will arrive in Liberia’s capital by Aug. 5, secure a cease-fire and set up a separation zone between government and rebel troops, Voice of America reported.

Three U.S. ships carrying 2,000 Marines and 2,500 sailors have been deployed to the Mediterranean Sea, where they were to await orders to head to Liberia, according to the Associated Press.

While the United States has little strategic or security interest in Liberia, some argue for intervention on humanitarian and moral grounds. Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, Liberia’s capital was named after James Monroe, the fifth U.S. president.

A Boston Globe editorial on Wednesday called on the Bush administration to “stop waffling and commit to putting U.S. troops on the ground in Liberia as quickly as possible.” In order to do that, the newspaper said, Bush will have to abandon his precondition that Taylor resign.

Taylor said in a telephone interview with the New York Times that he planned to step down within 10 days and turn power over to the speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives.

Skeptics said Taylor was bluffing. He has said before during the last six weeks that he would leave the country but has repeatedly amended his plans. Taylor, who has been indicted for war crimes for his role in supporting rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone, wants those charges dropped. He has pledged to accept Nigeria’s offer of asylum, but only after peacekeepers arrive to ensure an orderly transition.

But Taylor, who told the New York newspaper he would make a formal announcement on Saturday, said this time he could be trusted to fulfill his pledge, because he had made a commitment to an American evangelist he regards as his “religious leader.”

K.A. Paul, an evangelist based in Houston, arranged and took part in the interview, the paper reported Tuesday.

Paul, who was born in India and heads an organization called Gospel to the Unreached Millions that supports indigenous missionaries in what has been termed the “10/40 Window,” said he visited Monrovia last week at the invitation of several religious leaders from Liberia.

Paul said he first met Taylor last week, praying with him several times in a “prayer room” at the Liberian president’s home.

“I believe this man is genuinely committed to me, and he will step down in my presence,” the evangelist said.

Paul isn’t the first minister to befriend Taylor. Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson made headlines two weeks ago when he said President Bush’s demand that Taylor step down would have the effect of deposing a Christian president and handing the country over to Muslim rebels.

After criticism that his comments were self-serving, Robertson, whose Freedom Gold company in 1999 reportedly entered into an arrangement with Taylor’s government to mine gold in southern Liberia, issued a “clarification” July 16 saying he “in no way indicated” he was supporting Taylor.

“I regret that my sentiments in support of the suffering Liberian people were misinterpreted by The Washington Post as unqualified support for Charles Taylor, a man whom I have never met, and about whose actions a decade ago I have no firsthand knowledge,” Robertson said in the statement.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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