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LIBERIA: Taylor leaves the country, US warships approach

MONROVIA, 11 August 2003 (IRIN) - Charles Taylor ended his bloody six-year rule of Liberia on Monday by handing over the green presidential sash of office to his deputy Moses Zeh Blah and flying out to exile in Nigeria. Shortly afterwards US warships appeared off the coast and three helicopters flew into the US embassy compound.

Taylor left on the presidential jet of Nigerian head of state Olusegun Obasanjo. He did not come personally to attend the hand-over ceremony. However, it was witnessed by the presidents of South Africa, Ghana and Mozambique, who flew in to guarantee Taylor's personal security as he and his family departed.

Some of Taylor's ministers wept openly as the plane took off, but a crowd of civilians at the airport cheered. Thousands of bedraggled civilians lined the roadside in stony silence as Taylor's motorcade sped to the airport.

Reuters reported that in the rebel-held sector of Monrovia, jubilant fighters whooped for joy, fired their guns into the air and sang "No more monkey."

Taylor complained in a farewell speech at the presidential palace, which had no fuel left to run its electricity generators, that he had been forced out of office by US pressure. He warned other African leaders that they too might suffer the same fate if they were not careful.

"I want to be the sacrificial lamb, I will be the whipping boy," said Taylor, a warlord who plunged Liberia into 14 years of civil war.

Dressed in his trademark white safari suit, he was sombre, but defiant. "I leave you with these parting words," he concluded, "God willing, I will be back."

President John Kufuor of Ghana said Blah, a friend and comrade in arms of Taylor for nearly 20 years, would rule this war-torn West African country until 2 October. Blah would then hand over to an interim president chosen by a Liberian peace conference that is under way in Accra, he added.

But the two rebel movements who have seized most of the country and half of the capital Monrovia, said they were unwilling to let Blah remain in power for a further seven weeks.

The Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel movement, which controls all of northern Liberia and half of Monrovia, said this was a much longer stretch than the two week transition period suggested at peace talks in Ghana brokered by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Moses Jarbo, a senior LURD representative at the peace talks in Accra complained: "ECOWAS is now saying things that are far removed from what we previously discussed. This is a new development which we will have to talk over."

But he described Taylor's resignation and departure as "a step in the right direction." He also left open the possibility that LURD might still withdraw its forces from Monrovia with Blah as temporary head of state, providing the new president also pulled his gunmen out of the city.

"We have told the international community and ECOWAS to let the peacekeepers secure Monrovia, the Freeport and make the whole area an arms-free zone," Jarbo told IRIN. "Once that is done there will be no need for LURD to continue its hold on these areas."

The Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), a rebel group which controls the south and east of the country, was sceptical that much would change while Taylor's right-hand man remained in power.

MODEL chairman Thomas Nimely told the BBC that Liberian government forces were still attacking MODEL positions and there was no reason why Blah should be any different from Taylor.

And Tiah Slanger, the head of the MODEL delegation at the peace talks in Accra was sceptical that Taylor , who was elected president in 1997, would stop meddling in the nation's affairs. "Taylor says he will leave and that he will be back. We want to know if he is really sincere about leaving Liberia for good," he told IRIN.

An uneasy calm has fallen over the main battle fronts since Nigerian soldiers began arriving in Monrovia as the vanguard of a West African peacekeeping force that is due to number 3,250 men by the end of August.

However, less than 800 Nigerian troops have arrived in the country so far and their commanders say privately that the force is not yet strong enough to take full control of security in the capital and wrest its strategic port from rebel control so that relief operations can resume to assist the city's one million beleaguered residents.

The United Nations estimates that up to 450,000 people in the capital have been forced out of their homes by three rebel attacks on the city over the past two months. Many of these displaced people are starving, since aid agencies have been unable to access food supplies at warehouses in the rebel-held port for the past three weeks.

Diplomats and relief workers were hoping that following Taylor's departure, US troops would come ashore from the naval task force that has been lying just over the horizon for the past week. They want them to help the Nigerian peacekeepers maintain order in Monrovia and reopen its port for the importation of badly needed food, fuel and medical supplies.

But with large numbers of US troops bogged down in Iraq and Afghanisan, President George Bush, has been reluctant to commit more soldiers to an open-ended peacekeeping operation in Liberia. And he publicly ruled out any US military intervention in Liberia until Taylor had left the country.

But now Taylor has gone and Bush must decide what to do with the 2,300 marines standing by on the US navy assault ships that are only a few minutes flying time from Monrovia by helicopter.

Blah urged Washington to put these troops on the ground to help the West African peacekeepers and "give additional guarantees of security."

He and Taylor both urged the rebel movements and political parties who have been discussing a comprehensive peace settlement in Accra for the past two months to come home and continue their discussions in Monrovia.

"Let us now smoke the peace pipe and forget the war," Blah said.

LURD and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), another rebel group which controls most of southern and eastern Liberia, have both said they are willing to see a civilian appointed as interim president for a period of up to two years to rebuild the country's shattered infrastructure and organise fresh elections.

However, there is still no consensus over who should take on this role.

The six names currently circulating at the peace talks in Accra are George Toe Washington, a retired army officer who was military chief of staff in the 1960s, Togba Na Tipoteh of the Liberian People's Party, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former UN official who was defeated by Taylor in the 1997 presidential election, Marcus Jones, president of the Liberia Bar Association, Judith Browne and Roosevelt Kuya.

Johnson Sirleaf said recently she was withdrawing her candidature, but LURD and MODEL representatives both said that her name was still under discussion.

ECOWAS had been expected to present both rebel movements with a final draft of a comprehensive peace agreement over the weekend with a view to signing it this week, but LURD and MODEL said they had yet to see the document.

Themes: (IRIN) Conflict

[ENDS]

 

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