Wed, Jul 09, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Taylor drags his feet over departure

QUESTION OF TIMING The Liberian leader said he is ready to go once a stablization force is in place and he won't be hurried along by the US

AP , MONROVIA, LIBERIA

A Russian-built MI-8 helicopter takes off inside the US embassy compound in Monrovia, where 13 members of a 32-strong team of US military experts arrived from the Sierra Leone. Washington has been under intense international pressure to lead a peacekeeping force to Liberia.

PHOTO: AFP

President Charles Taylor said he is ready to step down "in a jiffy" -- but only after an international stabilization force arrives to ensure an orderly transition in this war-dived country.

Taylor's comments, in an interview Monday, came after a team of US military civil affairs experts arrived in Liberia to help assess whether to contribute to such a force.

Taylor, beset by rebels and indicted by a UN-backed war crimes court, insisted on "avoiding an unceremonious departure" in order to prevent "chaos and anarchy."

"If one US Marine stood on Broad Street and blew a whistle, `time out,' then there would be peace," Taylor said, referring to the main commercial thoroughfare in Monrovia.

"When they arrive, bingo. There's an exit," he said.

"... I would be out of here in a jiffy," he said.

The US faces mounting international pressure to intervene in Liberia, founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century and a major recipient of US aid until the late 1980s.

"They owe it to us," Taylor said.

However, in a separate interview with Associated Press Television News (APRN), he specified: "My departure depends on the presence of an international force, not the presence or absence of the Americans."

Taylor has repeatedly promised -- and failed -- to step down. On Sunday, he accepted an offer of asylum from Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo -- but did not specify when he would leave.

He appeared calm and confident Monday, speaking expansively in an anteroom of his plush executive mansion, where the carpet was emblazoned with the motto: "The love of liberty brought us here."

He insisted that he alone would decide on the timing of his withdrawal from power and criticized US President George W. Bush for continuing to press for his resignation after he promised last month to step down.

Bush has insisted on Taylor's resignation as a condition for US intervention.

"I said that for the sake of peace I will step down from office ... It was not President Bush who made the [initial] call," he told APTN. "Bush was late on this matter."

However, he said US troops would be welcome in Liberia, and need not fear a repeat of the military operation in Somalia that eventually killed 18 Americans.

"Liberia is American territory. Young Liberian women will put flowers in their path," he said. "Not one Liberian would even take a pistol against an American."

When he resigns, Taylor said he planned to ``rest and write.'' But he said he would stay involved in his political party _ and would not rule out the possibility of a political comeback.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday welcomed Taylor's decision to resign and leave the country.

"The secretary-general sees this development as a significant turning point as Liberia strives to move from war to peace," said a statement issued by Annan's spokesman in New York.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday that Taylor's promise to leave "remains encouraging" but that he must act on his words "so that stability can be achieved."

Two helicopters brought a team of American military experts, some wearing armor and some carrying assault weapons, to the US Embassy compound in Monrovia on Monday.

US Navy Captain Roger Coldiron, who heads the 32-person team, said that his mission was to "assess the security environment" in the country and study the humanitarian needs of its 3 million people.

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