- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia — A cease-fire took effect in Liberia yesterday with Washington and West Africa pressing President Charles Taylor and rebels to carry out in full their pledge to end their 3-year-old war.

The cease-fire is the first step in an agreement signed Tuesday in Ghana that calls for Mr. Taylor to give up power. Another test comes this weekend with the expected arrival of a cease-fire verification team supported by the United Nations, soon to be followed by a West African-led stabilization force of 2,000-plus troops.

U.S. authorities confirmed that some U.S. role was being considered in the force for Liberia, a nation founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century.

Rebels complained of at least two attacks on their positions after the 1 a.m. deadline for fighting to stop. West African officials who have been involved in talks in Ghana that led to the cease-fire played down the reported violations, saying it was still early.

“The eyes of the world are on you now,” former Nigerian military ruler Abdulsalami Abubakar told Mr. Taylor’s government and Liberia’s two rebel movements.

Gen. Abubakar urged the two sides “not to betray their Liberian compatriots.”

The war has driven at least 1.3 million Liberians from their homes, and human rights groups accuse both sides of widespread killing, raping, robbing and kidnapping of civilians.

In Ghana’s capital, Accra, Mr. Taylor’s ruling party, other Liberian parties and rebels opened political talks that under the deal are to lead to an interim government, one that would exclude Mr. Taylor, an indicted war-crimes suspect accused of 14 years of gunrunning, diamond-smuggling and conflict in West Africa.

Under the accord, Liberia’s government, rebels and political parties will “seek, within 30 days, a comprehensive peace agreement. The peace agreement shall, amongst other issues, cover … formation of a transitional government, which will not include the current president.”

Mr. Taylor, newly indicted by a U.N. war-crimes court and under threat of arrest, announced at the June 4 opening of the talks that he would surrender power in the interest of peace.

“If President Taylor is seen as a problem, then I will remove myself. I’m doing this because I’m tired of the people dying. I can no longer see this genocide in Liberia,” Mr. Taylor said. His six-year term would end in January.

Immediately after the signing, Mr. Taylor’s government suggested that the cease-fire was the only binding part of the deal — hedging on Mr. Taylor’s surrender of power.

“It’s a political discussion, including the issue of the stepping aside of President Taylor,” spokesman Vaanii Paasawe said. “What we were successful in doing in Accra was to separate the cease-fire issue from the political questions.”

News of the truce set off rejoicing in the capital, Monrovia, a city of 1 million crowded with refugees living in shell-ruined buildings.

Offshore, the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge stood waiting yesterday, its Navy helicopters shuttling supplies for the heavily secured U.S. Embassy.

The warship, with 3,000 sailors, was deployed to evacuate Americans after rebels pushed to Liberia’s capital this month. But with calm holding for more than a week, U.S. authorities said they expected the ship’s stopover to be short.

The United States praised the truce and said it looked forward to the formation of an interim government without Mr. Taylor.

In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Philip T. Reeker spoke of Liberians’ suffering under Mr. Taylor and said those responsible for atrocities in West Africa’s conflicts should be held accountable.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the pact “an important step forward” and urged other countries to give relief aid.

Neither Mr. Taylor nor his government made any additional public comment yesterday on his ceding power, which is by far the most contentious part of the accord.

Educated at a Boston business school and trained in a Libyan guerrilla camp, Mr. Taylor sprung Liberia into conflict in 1989 when he led a small force into the country to overthrow President Samuel Doe, who had seized power in a 1980 military coup in which President William R. Tolbert and his entire Cabinet were killed.

Sgt. Doe and at least 150,000 other Liberians died in the seven-year civil war that followed his overthrow.

[Prince Yormie Johnson, a former rebel leader in Liberia whose group captured and tortured Sgt. Doe to death in 1990, yesterday welcomed the truce in Liberia, Agence France-Presse reported from Lagos, Nigeria.]

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