(New York) - West African countries should immediately deploy an international force to Liberia, with the United States providing logistical support and troops on the ground.

A ceasefire among the warring parties, and the departure of indicted President Charles Taylor, are both desirable goals. But the situation is too urgent for an international force to wait for either event, Human Rights Watch said. Nor should international forces wait for “Chapter VII” peace-enforcement authority from the United Nations before acting, although the United Nations should grant such authority as quickly as possible.

“Each day of delay brings only more dead and wounded in Liberia,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “The time for rhetoric has passed. Troops need to be on the ground as soon as possible.”

The current rebel offensive on Monrovia is the third attack in the past six weeks. The fighting has left hundreds of civilians dead or wounded and made it impossible for humanitarian agencies to provide medical care or other aid to the imperiled civilian population. Civilians have fled to Monrovia to escape fighting and abuse in the rebel-controlled countryside and, reportedly, nearly half of Liberia’s civilian population is now in the capital.

The international forces should be deployed to maintain law and order in Monrovia; to protect civilians from indiscriminate and targeted attacks by rebel and government forces; and to help ensure that humanitarian assistance can reach civilian populations in need. The forces should ensure that all parties, including the peacekeeping troops, must respect international humanitarian and human rights law.

Nigeria has offered to deploy two battalions, including a large number of American-trained soldiers, to Monrovia in the coming days, as a first step toward deployment by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

But the United States, with its historical links to Liberia and its rapid response capability, must ensure that any international deployment gets underway as quickly as possible, Human Rights Watch said.

“President Bush committed U.S. support to peace in Liberia, both before and during his recent trip in Africa,” said Takirambudde. “The United States should not continue to waffle on intervention.”

U.S. participation should not be limited to logistical support but should include a ground presence. The presence of U.S. troops will help ensure the effectiveness of the deployment, and encourage other nations to participate in an eventual U.N.-mandated protective force, Human Rights Watch said.