- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia — Pressured by fellow West African leaders, President Charles Taylor promised yesterday to resign Aug. 11 after the expected arrival of peacekeepers, as his forces stepped up their battle against rebels for Monrovia’s port.

As fighting surged in the city, Mr. Taylor — after meeting with West African envoys — told reporters at his lavish oceanside executive offices that he would hand over power after a joint session of Liberia’s Congress next week.

Mr. Taylor said he would step down the morning of Aug. 11, “and the new guy will have to be sworn in by midday.” But he refused to say when he would leave Liberia, as he has promised to do previously, and as West African leaders and the United States have demanded.

“The most important thing is, everything that we have said about resigning and leaving will happen,” said Mr. Taylor, who has been offered asylum by Nigeria.

Mr. Taylor has said he will hand power to one of two longtime colleagues — Nyundueh Monkomana, Liberia’s speaker of the House, or Moses Blah, his vice president.

The president had accused Mr. Blah of complicity in what he called a U.S.-backed coup attempt against him in June, but Mr. Blah eventually returned to what appeared to be his full public role. Mr. Monkomana is thought to be more acceptable to all sides, including rebels.

Mr. Taylor has been promising to surrender power since June 4, when a U.N.-Sierra Leone court announced a war-crimes indictment against him for his support of rebels there in a brutal civil war.

He also has made and broken other accords in 14 years of Liberian conflict, which Mr. Taylor, then a warlord, started as the leader of a small insurgency in 1989.

Yesterday’s meeting with regional envoys appeared to make at least some progress by committing Mr. Taylor to a date.

West African heads of state, in a summit late last week in Ghana, committed to sending peacekeepers tomorrow to Liberia, where rebels pressing a 3-year-old war to oust Mr. Taylor have the capital under two months of deadly sieges.

They had insisted that Mr. Taylor leave by Thursday, three days after the deployment — an unusually forceful message to a peer, delivered under strong U.N. and U.S. pressure.

“West African leaders seemed to understand that leaving the country within three days is not practical,” Taylor spokesman Vaanii Passawe said after the meeting.

One envoy praised Mr. Taylor’s agreement as “unprecedented.”

“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, said. “That’s our main concern, not deadlines.”

Mr. Blah said yesterday that Mr. Taylor set two conditions for leaving once he cedes power: that an adequate number of peacekeepers are on the ground, and that the war-crimes indictment against him be dropped.

U.N. prosecutors are adamant that Mr. Taylor face justice, raising the prospect of a standoff blocking his departure.

The U.N. Security Council on Friday approved deployment of the multinational force to Liberia, which is to last two months and be followed by U.N. peacekeepers.

It was still not clear whether U.S. Marines on three warships that are expected to arrive off Liberia’s coast soon will go ashore. The Bush administration has insisted that the force being assembled by the Economic Community of West African States, known as ECOWAS, take the lead.

Yesterday, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan underscored Washington’s insistence that Mr. Taylor leave Liberia.

“Charles Taylor needs to leave and we need to see it in his actions, not only words,” Mr. McClellan said. “The president has made it clear that Charles Taylor needs to leave, there needs to be a cease-fire in place and that the United States stands ready to support ECOWAS.”

Liberians — who feel a historical and cultural bond with the United States — have clamored for U.S. forces to help end the fighting in their country, founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century.

Fighting accompanying the rebel offensives has killed well over 1,000 civilians in Monrovia. Hostilities have cut off the port and the main water plant, leaving the city of more than 1.3 million residents and refugees desperately short of food and water, and plagued by cholera.

Heavy fighting erupted again yesterday at two bridges linking Monrovia’s rebel-held island port with downtown, the heart of the Taylor government. Front-line government officers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they received an order to recapture the port “at any cost.”

Government fighters crossed one span, the New Bridge, in waves, some crouching midway and directing heavy grenade and gunfire toward buildings on the other side — apparently aiming at rebel snipers.

The two sides traded blame for the escalation in fighting, which came as both sides sought to consolidate territory, bettering their positions for any negotiations, ahead of the arrival of peacekeepers.

At Monrovia’s overwhelmed main hospital, government militia fighters brought in many of the first 70 wounded and seven or eight dead from the fighting. They slapped nurses and threatened medical workers to keep them from amputating a commander’s shattered leg, hospital medical director Mohammed Sheriff said.

West African leaders have pledged to deploy at least 300 Nigerian forces tomorrow, to be followed days after by troops of Ghana, Senegal and Mali. West Africans have called for a total of 5,000 regional peacekeepers.

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