American slavery was one of history's greatest crimes, President Bush said Tuesday at the very spot where hundreds of thousands of Africans were bought and sold like cargo.
Embarking on a five-nation tour of Africa, Bush also edged toward sending U.S. troops to help end a three-year civil war in Liberia, a nation founded by freed American slaves.
"At this place, liberty and life were stolen and sold," Bush said during a visit to Senegal's notorious Goree Island, for several centuries a processing station for African slaves bound in chains for the Western Hemisphere.
"Human beings were delivered and sorted, and weighed, and branded with the marks of commercial enterprises, and loaded as cargo on a voyage without return," he said. "One of the largest migrations of history was also one of the greatest crimes of history."
Bush was touring the continent to promote his economic development and AIDS initiatives and to beef up cooperation in stopping the spread of terrorism. The president, traveling with first lady Laura Bush and their daughter Barbara, left Senegal on Africa's northwest coast and flew to South Africa, arriving in the capital city of Pretoria shortly before midnight. He will also visit Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria, all U.S. allies in the war on terrorism.
His first visit as president was vying for attention with continued tensions in Liberia.
After meeting with eight west African leaders, Bush told reporters that he had promised U.S. participation to help enforce a temporary cease-fire and to allow for a peaceful transition.
"We're now in the process of determining what that means," he said when asked if such participation meant U.S. troops.
Bush aides suggested his comments signaled there would be some involvement of U.S. forces, although the size and role of such a unit remains an open question.
Bush reiterated an insistence that the current Liberian president must step down.
"Charles Taylor must leave," Bush said. And he said the United Nations would play a role in any peacekeeping effort.
Taylor accepted an offer of asylum in Nigeria, but without giving a timetable. In an interview with the Associated Press, Taylor said again that he would only leave after a peacekeeping force is deployed.
Taylor said the United States owes it to the Liberian people to help to end 14 years of civil war in the nation. Liberia was founded in the mid 1800s by freed American slaves, and the two nations have had close relations.
With Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, Bush visited cramped cells at a former slave house on Goree Island built by the Dutch in 1776. Goree is a 45-acre island in the Atlantic Ocean several miles off the harbor of Senegal's capital of Dakar. Overall, as many as 20-million Africans were enslaved, and up to an estimated one-tenth of them passed through Goree.
In his eight-minute speech, the president stopped short of issuing the blanket apology for slavery that some civil rights advocates had sought. Still, he called it a sin and one of America's past wrongs.
"A republic founded on equality for all became a prison for millions," Bush said.