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The World

Taylor Gives Date for His Resignation

Under pressure, Liberia's leader says he will hand over power Aug. 11. The civil war may be in its last stretch, analysts say.

August 03, 2003|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

MONROVIA, Liberia — Bowing to pressure from West African leaders, beleaguered Liberian President Charles Taylor pledged Saturday to resign Aug. 11 but refused to say when he would leave his war-ravaged nation.

As government fighters and rebels continued their battle over Monrovia's port and certain strategic bridges, Taylor told a news conference at his plush Atlantic Ocean mansion that he would cede power during a joint session of Liberia's Congress next week, "and the new guy will be sworn in by midday." He stopped short of offering any date for going into exile.

"The most important thing is, everything that we have said about resigning and leaving will happen," said Taylor, who has been promising to leave Liberia since July 4.

Taylor has said he will hand power to his Vice President Moses Blah, who he recently accused of complicity in a coup and then seemingly vindicated, or to Nyundueh Monkomana, Liberia's speaker of the House.

Analysts expressed hope that the 14-year conflict that has engulfed this West African nation, founded by freed American slaves, had entered its last stretch.

"This is the final lap in terms of dealing with Taylor's departure and then beginning the difficult task of putting the pieces back together," said Comfort Ero, West Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution think tank. She spoke by phone from Freetown, the capital of neighboring Sierra Leone.

The Liberian president has accepted an offer of asylum in Nigeria, but aides close to Taylor -- who has been indicted by a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone -- indicated Saturday that he might stay put for quite a while longer. They continue to insist that his term in office lasts until January.

"If he relinquishes power, that is the most important thing," Taylor's spokesman, Vaani Passawe, said in an interview. "He is leaving power. But leaving the country in the face of the indictment particularly -- that is not reasonable."

Blah, the vice president, said Taylor's departure depended on the war crimes indictment being quashed and an adequate number of peacekeepers on the ground.

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Peacekeeping Pledge

Taylor's announcement that he would step down came after two hours of talks with West African senior officials, who had initially demanded that he resign three days after the arrival of regional peacekeepers to Liberia on Monday.

But one envoy praised Taylor's agreement to resign, noting that this was more important than the actual date.

"He is to be congratulated for his sense of statesmanship and patriotism, recognizing the realities and the fact that his departure will facilitate the making of peace in Liberia," Nana Akufo-Addo, Ghana's foreign minister, told reporters.

West African leaders have pledged to deploy at least 300 Nigerian soldiers to Liberia on Monday. They will be followed shortly thereafter by troops from Ghana, Senegal and Mali. It was still unclear whether U.S. Marines on three warships en route to Liberia's coast would go ashore upon their arrival, which is expected this week.

Traveling to Texas with President Bush, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Saturday that the administration is waiting for the situation in Liberia to stabilize. "Charles Taylor needs to leave, and we need to see it in his actions, not only words," McClellan said.

Rebels fighting to oust Taylor from power have remained skeptical about the president's intentions to quit and go into exile.

Sekou Conneh, civilian chairman of the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, has insisted that "Taylor is not going to leave except by force."

Taylor's cronies said they dreaded the thought of any rebel leaders coming to power.

"Then what happens next? That's the question you should ask," said Victoria Reffell, chairwoman of Liberia's National Reconciliation and Reunification Commission. "The people are left at the mercy of these people? You have uneducated people who didn't finish high school jumping up and saying they want to lead the country."

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Heavy Losses

Driving rain failed to curtail heavy fighting Saturday at Monrovia's port, where rebels were battling to cross bridges toward downtown and into the heart of Taylor's government. Black smoke billowed from buildings in what for the last 13 days was rebel-held territory. War-weary residents were again sent scrambling for cover.

Cars crammed with militiamen toting heavy artillery sped in reverse across one bridge toward the new front line, while other soldiers, some without guns, had to be prodded at gunpoint to get on their feet for the advance.

Intense gunfire left at least 70 government soldiers wounded -- the highest toll in several days of fighting -- according to medical staff at Monrovia's main hospital, where most of injured were taken in cars and pickup trucks.

Despite the heavy losses, some government soldiers said they were determined to beat the rebels back.

"I'm still fighting," said 17-year-old Gerald Kealie, who lost a leg in battle last year but demonstrated how he could still fire a gun by steadying himself with one crutch and using his other arm to hoist his weapon. "I'm fighting for my country. After peacekeepers get here, we will stop."

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Times staff photographer Carolyn Cole in Monrovia and staff writer Vicki Kemper in Crawford, Texas, contributed to this report.

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