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Evacuation of Americans set from Sierra Leone

May 29, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ About 250 Americans are to be flown out of Sierra Leone because of sporadic gunfire in the capital of Freetown, where rebel soldiers ousted the elected government.

``It’s not stable at all,″ Army Col. Richard Bridges, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday in announcing the airlift. Despite the gunfire, however, he said Americans have not been threatened directly.

The Americans will be helicoptered Friday to the amphibious warship USS Kearsarge, now riding about 20 miles offshore of the West African nation.

Navy Capt. Greg Ertel, commander of the Kearsarge’s amphibious unit, said in a telephone hook-up to the Pentagon that he has eight transport helicopters and four attack helicopters to aid in the evacuation.

``We will process the people, feed them ... and try to take care of them,″ Ertel said of the evacuees. He said he expected children to be among them.

Ertel said the number of Marines involved in the operation depended on an evaluation of the security threat Friday. There are 1,300 Marines aboard the Kearsarge.

The captain said it was ``relatively quiet″ in Freetown as of late Thursday night.

The Kearsarge had been positioned off the coast of Congo since early May for a possible evacuation of Americans there. It did not take place.

The Freetown operation is expected to be completed in a day, Bridges said. Four Marines have gone ashore from Kearsarge to arrange the airlift, Bridges said, and 11 members of an Army Special Forces unit who were in Sierra Leone training local soldiers have gone to the U.S. Embassy to help.

The evacuees will remain on the Kearsarge for a day or two, then be flown to Conakry, Guinea. They are expected to depart from there for Europe and then to the United States.

About 400 Americans are in Sierra Leone.

At the State Department, spokesman John Dinger said nationals from third countries will be evacuated on a space-available basis with the Americans. Dinger said 17 members of the embassy staff will evacuate, leaving behind 15 essential staff. The 250 evacuees are expected to include dependents, missionaries and business people.

Attempts are being made through such means as the Voice of America to contact other Americans outside Freetown who might want to join the airlift, Bridges said.

The embassy’s charge d’affaires, Ann Wright, met with coup leaders and asked them to ensure the safety of Americans.

She also demanded they restore the elected government, Dinger said. He said the United States suspended $1 million in nonhumanitarian aid to Sierra Leone to show its displeasure.

A $28 million humanitarian relief program continues.

A contingent of junior officers from Sierra Leone’s army captured the capital Sunday by overthrowing elected President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah in an uprising that killed at least 20 people.