GOREE ISLAND, Senegal (AP) — 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 western African 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'll make stops later in Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria — all stable democracies and important U.S. allies in the war on terrorism.
His first visit as president was vying for attention with continued tensions in violence-scarred 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 in power in that country.
"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.
For his part, 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 to prevent "chaos and anarchy." 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.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Secretary of State Colin Powell on Monday to discuss Liberia and also spoke to French President Jacques Chirac, U.N. deputy spokeswoman Hua Jiang said Tuesday at U.N. headquarters in New York. Annan arrived in Maputo, Mozambique on Tuesday to attend an African Union summit.
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 this one-time slave station.
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 his country's "past wrongs."
"A republic founded on equality for all became a prison for millions," Bush said.
He also acknowledged that scars from slavery still ripple through American society.
"Many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experience of other times," Bush said. "But however long the journey, our destination is set: liberty and justice for all."
He noted that it was those who fought slavery — black and white alike — who left behind a better nation.
"The stolen sons and daughters of Africa helped to awaken the conscience of America," he said. "The very people traded into slavery helped to set America free. My nation's journey toward justice has not been easy and it is not over."
Despite painful shared history, Bush said the United States and Africa must work together to eradicate disease and war, and to encourage greater business ties. Efforts to forge closer ties with the continent have been complicated by the U.S.-led war in Iraq, which was unpopular with Muslims across much of Africa.
Bush went to Goree Island after meeting in Dakar with Wade and the heads of seven other West African democracies. Topics included trade counterterrorism, security in the region, trade, hunger and HIV and AIDS.
The administration has proposed a $15 billion, five-year AIDS initiative for the 14 hardest-hit countries in the world, 12 of which are in Africa. Bush also has proposed a $1 billion famine initiative, including a $200 million emergency famine fund, and a five-year $600 million education initiative.