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Good, Gray BBC Concedes Mistake, Issues Apology

November 12, 1992

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Red-faced British Broadcasting Corp. officials have apologized to the Bush administration for a report that angered a top State Department official and left the impression of a major shift in U.S. policy toward Liberia’s civil war.

″We presented it badly,″ said Mick Delap, deputy head of BBC’s Africa Service, in a telephone interview from London. ″We permitted use of information that was somewhat misleading.″

At issue were remarks by Herman Cohen, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, on Nov. 4 during an appearance at Harvard University.

After a speech, Delap said, Cohen was approached by a Liberian refugee named Isaac Bantu who asked him about increased fighting in Liberia between forces loyal to a faction headed by Charles Taylor and the West African peace- keeping force.

″Unfortunately, the Economic Community of West African States is no longer a neutral party,″ said Cohen, referring to the peace-keeping force. ″They came in there as a neutral party hoping to bring about a mediation, but they are now one of the combatants.″

The off-the-cuff comments left, for the State Department, the unfortunate impression that Cohen was agreeing with Taylor’s own view that the peace- keeping force was taking sides and therefore could not be trusted.

The administration had been growing increasingly alarmed about Taylor’s willingness to do battle with the 12,000-member force, which was sent to Liberia in August 1990. Among other U.S. concerns, Taylor’s forces have been receiving support from Libya and the pro-Libyan regime in Burkina Faso.

Bantu, a former stringer for the BBC in Liberia, mailed the Cohen tape to the BBC in London, which used the quotes as part of a report on Liberia on Wednesday.

The State Department was ″extremely exercised″ upon learning of the report, Delap said.

He said Cohen maintained that the remarks were made in confidence and was so miffed at the BBC for using the tape that he refused to talk to the station when he was tracked down later on in Paris.

Delap said the Wednesday broadcast left the erroneous impression that Cohen’s remarks were fresh when in fact they were a week old. He said the BBC should have sought a clarification of U.S. policy, particularly in light of new developments in Liberia, including a cease-fire that went into effect on Wednesday and quickly fell apart.

The BBC sought to make amends by quoting Robert Houdek, a deputy assistant secretary, as saying there had been no change in U.S. policy.

Asked for comment Thursday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher took note of the BBC apology and reaffirmed that U.S. policy toward Liberia has not changed.

″We strongly support the efforts of the Economic Community of West African States to bring peace to Liberia. ... We’ve consistently supported their presence in Liberia.″

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