- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

MONROVIA, Liberia — The wife of Liberia’s main rebel leader said yesterday she was taking power from her husband with the open backing of dozens of his former battlefield commanders. Her husband insisted he was still in charge.

Asha Keita-Conneh, long believed to be a power behind the guerrilla movement headed by her husband, Sekou Conneh, made the announcement surrounded by rebel fighters as her baby lay beside her.

Aside from the rarity of putting a woman at the head of thousands of guerrillas, the family feud over leadership of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy rebel group threatens to destabilize Liberia’s six-month, internationally brokered peace if it opens a lasting rift between armed loyalists of husband and wife.

“I put him there as chairman. If you open a big business and put your husband in charge, if you see that things are not going the right way, you step him aside and straighten things up,” Mrs. Keita-Conneh said.

“If somebody gives you something and the person wants it back, there should be no problem,” she said as insurgent fighters nodded assent.

She said that, unlike her husband, “I want peace.”

Mrs. Keita-Conneh said she acted because the ambitions for power of her husband — a little-seen, former used-car salesman — were putting the country’s peace in jeopardy.

Sekou Conneh took to Liberian state radio yesterday to insist it was only a family squabble, and that he remained head of the insurgency.

“I am chairman, even if there was problem between me and my wife, it has been resolved and I am the chairman,” he said.

It was unclear yesterday who enjoys greater support among the rebels.

The group drove President Charles Taylor from power Aug. 11 and signed a power-sharing agreement a week later that was meant to end 14 years of warlord power struggles in Liberia.

A U.N. peace force is helping enforce the accord. Under the interim power-sharing deal, Mr. Conneh and other leaders on all sides in the war are prohibited from holding high office.

Some self-declared generals in the rebel group earlier this month already had declared Mr. Conneh out as head of the group.

Top rebel officials in recent days circulated a statement pledging fealty to Mrs. Keita-Conneh, who won the loyalty of President Lansana Conte of neighboring Guinea — seen as the prime backer of the three-year rebellion.

Guinea, angered by late-1990s incursions by Mr. Taylor’s forces, is widely believed to have helped arm and fund the rebel group when it took up arms against Mr. Taylor in 1999. Guinea denies such backing.

The key link between rebels and Guinea was believed to have been Mrs. Keita-Conneh, who became Mr. Conte’s spiritual guide. The Guinean president adopted Mrs. Keita-Conneh as his daughter.

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