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Taylor offers to quit after arrival of peacekeepers

Embattled Liberian President Charles Taylor offered to step down conditionally Friday as President Bush directed the Pentagon to explore the possibility of sending U.S. troops to the war-torn country.

Responding to international pressure for his resignation, Taylor offered to leave power, but only after international peacekeepers arrived in Liberia. Bush has insisted on Taylor's resignation as the first step toward a possible deployment of U.S. forces.

Bush sent Pentagon experts to Africa to meet with African leaders and U.N. officials about a possible U.S. role in restoring stability.

"If this report of Charles Taylor leaving is true, the president would be encouraged by it," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "But it's important that it's more than words; it has to be deeds. He needs to leave."

Liberia's African neighbors and diplomats from other nations have requested as many as 2,000 U.S. troops to help enforce a cease-fire between Taylor's government and rebels seeking to oust him. The Liberian president was indicted for war crimes by a U.N. tribunal this year.

Fleischer said Bush would not be rushed into a making a decision before leaving Monday on a five-day visit to Africa. Liberia is not on Bush's itinerary, but it is sure to be at the top of the agenda in his discussions with African leaders in Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria.

Nigeria has offered Taylor temporary asylum if he leaves Liberia.

Speaking to Liberian clerics in Monrovia, Liberia's capital, Taylor said he would "welcome and will embrace the presence of American troops" in Liberia, according to various news reports from the country. But, he added, "I don't understand why the United States government would insist that I be absent before its soldiers arrive."

Bush's advisers are split on how to deal with Liberia. Opponents of a deployment, led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, say the military is stretched thin by missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and other world hot spots.

Advocates of U.S. involvement contend that American intervention could restore order before instability spreads.

Some contend that the United States has a special responsibility in Liberia because it was founded by freed American slaves.

Bush offered few clues to his thinking, but he used his July 4 speech to defend his view that America should be actively involved in international affairs.

"Without America's active involvement in the world, the ambitions of tyrants would go unopposed, and millions would live at the mercy of terrorists," he told a crowd at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. "With Americans' active involvement in the world, tyrants learn to fear, and terrorists are on the run."