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History ties U.S. to nation in turmoil

The United States is being called to the rescue of Liberia, yanked by old bonds many Americans never knew the United States had.

The two nations have economic and strategic ties dating to 1822, when President James Monroe dispatched soldiers to escort ashore the first freed American slaves, who founded the nation with a U.S.-style Declaration of Independence.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and international figures from Europe to Africa have spoken of the United States as the natural candidate to lead a peacekeeping force.

Why the U.S. military? Effectiveness, for one reason, supporters of the idea say. Obligation, for another.

They point to neighboring Sierra Leone, where a 10-year rebel terror campaign to win control of that country's diamond fields killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians.

Sierra Leone's drugged, uneducated rebels repeatedly made mockeries of peace deals _ until former colonial ruler Britain intervened with Guinea and the United Nations, crushed the rebels, and brought peace in 2002.

Liberia, unlike Sierra Leone, was never a colony _ but it came close. The United States and American abolitionists supported the back-to-Africa movement that sent former U.S. slaves to found Liberia.

In 1847, Liberia became independent, patterning its republic on the American model. Its founders pledged in a U.S.-style Declaration of Independence to "regenerate and enlighten this benighted continent." They named their capital after Monroe and the nation's second city after President James Buchanan; they picked a flag that recalls the Stars and Stripes.

But Liberia's African-Americans, once returned from slavery, enslaved Liberia's tribes. Calling themselves Americo-Liberians, they became the ruling class, sending tribesmen to labor in plantations.

In the 1920s, Firestone created the world's largest rubber plantation in Liberia, helping make its fortune, and Liberia's. For a while, rubber trade with Firestone and other American companies gave Liberia the highest per-capita income in sub-Saharan Africa.

But tensions between the Americo-Liberians, roughly 5 percent of Liberia's 3.3-million people, and the 16 major tribes were never far from the surface.

Riots broke out in 1979, and the next year army Master Sgt. Samuel Doe, a Krahn tribesman, seized control, butchering the president and other Americo-Liberians. Since then, the fighting has never really ended.

The U.S. interest in Liberia became strategic during the Cold War, when President Ronald Reagan welcomed it as a West African launch pad for covert activities against Libya.

The role earned Liberia the most per capita U.S. aid of any African country, and President Samuel Doe a then-rare one-on-one White House visit.

Libya, in turn, looked to strike back at the United States and its West African ally _ and found Charles Taylor. A Boston-educated business student, the Liberian-born Taylor graduated from the Cold War-era Libyan training camps of Moammar Gadhafi.

In 1989, bringing the U.S.-Libyan rivalry home, Taylor led a small force of armed men into Liberia to overthrow Doe. Since then, hundreds of thousands have been killed. Aid groups say virtually the whole population has been displaced by fighting, at one time or the other.

Liberians, faithful imitators of the United States, with their Masonic temples and evangelical Protestant churches, puzzle over why America remains aloof from their current troubles _ despite the dangers of any American deployment.

"Once America steps in, the process will be smooth and simple; the nightmare will end," Monrovia resident Stephen Scott declared. He spoke as aid workers cleaned the streets of corpses left by last week's four-day rebel siege of the city, which killed hundreds.

_ Information from the Sacramento Bee was used in this report.