Sun, Jul 06, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Taylor promises to leave once peacekeepers arrive


Liberia's embattled President Charles Taylor resurrected a broken pledge to leave office, but stressed he would step down only after an international peacekeeping force is deployed in his war-ruined west African nation.

With his capital surrounded by insurgents and the US and others clamoring for him give up power, Taylor said on Friday "before I transit, I think it is important that peacekeepers be present."

Taylor said he hoped US troops would be among any force sent to stabilize the country -- founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves and launched into near-perpetual conflict in 1989 by Taylor, a former warlord and indicted war criminal.

"I welcome and will embrace the presence of American troops in Liberia. I think it will be essential for stability," said Taylor, who has made and broken other pledges during 14 years of war making. "I don't understand why the United States government would insist that I be absent before its soldiers arrive."

In the US, officials said President George W. Bush is dispatching a team of military experts to Africa to assess whether sending US troops to Liberia would help bring stability to the country. They stressed Bush hasn't yet made any decision on possible troop deployment.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, France and Britain have all called for a peacekeeping force, preferably led by the US.

The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on Friday pledged 3,000 troops for an intervention force, but renewed calls that it be led by US soldiers.

Bush said American officials were discussing the makeup of a peacekeeping force with ECOWAS.

The US military experts being sent to assess the situation will help Bush decide whether to commit troops, and how many if he does, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, adding that Bush was not bound to decide by "the artificial deadline" of his departure tomorrow for a weeklong trip to sub-Saharan Africa.

For nearly all of its history since declaring statehood in 1847, Liberia has looked to America as its guide. Even now, Liberians almost universally revere and respect the US.

Even many of the drugged and drunk teenagers who do the bulk of the fighting for Taylor and the two rebel groups battling to oust him say they yearn for US soldiers in the streets to end the undisciplined skirmishes that frequently seem as likely to result in friendly fire deaths as enemy killings.

Taylor, recently indicted on war crimes charges in neighboring Sierra Leone, offered a chilling warning to rebel opponents that his government forces were still "capable of carrying out havoc in the city. Even government soldiers and supporters that are angry are capable of havoc."

"I'm not fighting to stay in power. What I am fighting for right now is that there would be such a normal transition that anger, frustration and other things don't creep in," Taylor said.

Insurgents last month laid siege to the capital, Monrovia, leaving hundreds dead and sending tens of thousands of displaced villagers racing into the city center to seek shelter.

Now those refugees are stalked by hunger, disease and Taylor's looting, often drunken fighters.

Although Taylor indicated during the first round of peace talks in Ghana on June 4 he was willing to step down if doing so restored peace, he later insisted he would stay until his term runs out next year -- and possibly run again.

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