- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia — West African leaders committed yesterday to deploying the first peace troops to warring Liberia by the start of next week, and said President Charles Taylor would go into exile three days later.

In Monrovia, tens of thousands of Liberians emerged from hiding places to welcome a West African-U.S. advance team they hoped signaled the imminent arrival of peacekeepers.

The West African leaders, meeting in Ghana, agreed to send by Monday a vanguard of 1,500 peacekeepers, expected to be two battalions from Nigeria. Ghana, Mali, Benin, Senegal and Togo also have promised 3,250 soldiers for an eventual 5,000-strong force.

The pledge came as pressure grew on regional leaders to speed a peace force promised since rebels opened two months of bloody siege on Liberia’s capital in June.

Aid groups say more than 1,000 civilians have been killed and tens of thousands driven from their homes by the fighting, which has cut off food and clean water to the city of more than 1.3 million.

Mr. Taylor, a wanted U.N. war-crimes suspect for his backing of rebels in the neighboring nation of Sierra Leone, has said in recent weeks that he would yield power as soon as peace troops arrive.

In a statement, the West African leaders said “it was agreed” that Mr. Taylor would hand over power to a successor and accept an offer of exile in Nigeria within three days of the troops’ arrival. It was not clear whether Mr. Taylor had agreed to the West African leaders’ announcement.

While it will provide the advance force, debt-plagued Nigeria has asked the United States and others for more help paying what is expected to be a multimillion-dollar daily tab.

The United States, which oversaw the founding of Liberia by freed American slaves in the 19th century, has promised $10 million and is sending three warships with Marines to Liberia for what President Bush says will be limited assistance. The ships were within two days of Liberia.

Mr. Bush has insisted that U.S. troops will not be deployed until Mr. Taylor steps down and a cease-fire is in place. U.S. officials introduced a draft measure at the United Nations on Wednesday asking for approval of a multinational force, to be followed by a U.N. deployment by Oct. 1.

Last night, people in Liberia’s capital passed one of the quietest nights in the last two months of rebel offensives against government forces. Gunfire rattled, but there was some relief from the rocket and mortar volleys of recent days, allowing starving families to scurry out in search of food.

The advance team of 10 West African and U.S. officials, which is led by a Nigerian commander and has one American, set off jubilant celebrations as it passed shacks with tin roofs peeled back by explosives.

“This is a sign of peace coming,” refugee Hamilton Woods said with a smile.

As the team arrived at the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy, hundreds of refugees taking shelter around the compound spilled out, fluttering handkerchiefs and flashing peace signs while shouting with joy.

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