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THE WORLD

Taylor Steps Down for Exile in Nigeria

Liberian president's departure raises hopes that U.S.-backed West African peacekeepers will help end the civil war and build stability.

August 12, 2003|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

MONROVIA, Liberia — Charles Taylor, an indicted war crimes suspect and onetime warlord, resigned Monday as Liberia's president and went into exile, raising hopes for an end to the West African nation's violent rebellion.

Waving a white handkerchief to onlookers and accompanied by his wife, two children and several close aides, Taylor boarded a chartered jet bound for Nigeria, which had offered him asylum. Many of his supporters who gathered at the airport wept as Taylor flew off after ceding power to his vice president, Moses Blah.

His departure coincided with a brief appearance of three U.S. warships carrying more than 2,000 Marines off this capital city's shoreline. It was unclear if the troops would come ashore, and the vessels eventually moved farther out into the Atlantic.

Taylor's exit is seen as a promising step toward ending 14 years of conflict that has devastated this country, which was settled by freed American slaves in the 19th century.

The test now will be whether the international community, led by peacekeepers from West African nations with the backing of the United States, will help enforce a cease-fire and forge lasting stability.

Monrovia's hotly contested port, the corridor for much-needed humanitarian supplies, remains in rebel hands. And the many challenges ahead -- including demobilizing the rebel fighters, re-integrating them into society, rebuilding shattered infrastructure and restoring basic services -- could derail progress toward an enduring peace.

In neighboring Sierra Leone, where the United Nations took charge following that country's recently ended civil war, the experiment of placing a troubled nation under virtual international receivership appears to have brought some benefit. Many here want their country to become such a protectorate.

Speaking at his resignation ceremony inside a velvet-draped hall in Monrovia's executive mansion, Taylor described himself as a "sacrificial lamb" and a "whipping boy" and repeated previous comments that his departure was necessary for Liberia to have peace.

"Today is unique in that we take another step forward -- a step that should bring relief to the people of this nation," Taylor said, addressing about 300 local and foreign dignitaries, including legislators and Western diplomats.

"Today for me is a day for moving forward," he said. "We now put the past behind us."

He ended his remarks with a vow: "I will be back."

Taylor is accused of fueling conflict across neighboring West African nations and has been indicted by a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone, where he is alleged to have sponsored a rebel movement whose calling card was hacking off the limbs of civilians. His government was also accused of smuggling diamonds and arms and was punished with an international arms embargo.

Leaders of the rebel movement Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD, whose two-month assault on the capital has contributed to the deaths of more than 1,000 people and displaced thousands more, said they welcomed Taylor's exit.

"This is a very big step toward peace in our country," said Gen. Joe Wylie, a military advisor to LURD. "Taylor was a very negative character in Liberian politics. We are happy. We consider this to be a major victory."

Taylor was pressured to resign by the Bush administration and West African leaders.

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the commander of U.S. troops off Liberia would go ashore as early as today to discuss with Nigerian peacekeepers and international aid workers the steps needed to open Monrovia's port to aid shipments.

State Department officials said they were pleased by Taylor's departure and were ready to work with African countries in planning elections for a new government.

"Charles Taylor has been the catalyst for violence for some time in the region, so his departure is something we welcome," spokesman Philip T. Reeker said.

Another U.S. official said Taylor had probably decided to leave because it was clear that his forces could not keep fighting and because African leaders had promised him a dignified exit. Those leaders deserve credit for pressuring Taylor to make the move, said the official, who requested anonymity.

As Taylor prepared to leave Monday, he urged the international community to assist his flagging nation.

"We beg you, we plead with you not to make this another press event," Taylor said, adding that failure to make the proper commitment to Liberia could lead to another war and another president's being forced to leave.

He accused the United States of supporting the rebels, adding that now that he was leaving, American officials could "call off their dogs."

The vanguard of a West African peacekeeping force that is expected to grow to 3,250 troops has already brought a measure of stability to the capital. Nigerian soldiers have replaced Taylor's largely undisciplined militias at several makeshift checkpoints in the city.

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