- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

From combined dispatches

MONROVIA, Liberia — The U.S. ambassador in Liberia has warned two rebel groups not to threaten a fragile peace, after the insurgents said they would not disarm unless the head of the interim government is replaced.

The threat dealt a blow to attempts to end 14 years of war that have spawned a generation of fighters quick to sow chaos around West Africa. The two rebel groups issued a joint statement Sunday calling on the international community to help the factions “find a suitable replacement for Charles Gyude Bryant.”

Installed in October to lead the country to elections in 2005, Mr. Bryant was accused in the statement of “administrative partiality, inadequacy [and] ineptitude.” But his first 100 days in office were praised Monday by the United States, Liberia’s top donor.

The demand for his ouster, plus growing signs of divisions among the insurgents, put a question mark over a stop-start disarmament program meant to remove weapons from about 40,000 fighters.

“Any attempt to destabilize Liberia, including the National Transitional Government, will not be tolerated,” U.S. Ambassador John Blaney told reporters late Monday. “This is a last, great opportunity for Liberia to achieve stability and prosperity with the support of the international community,” he said.

Mr. Blaney played a key role in brokering Liberia’s peace deal, and the United States also sent troops to the waters off Liberia to back attempts to restore peace in a nation founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century.

A donors conference next week in New York sponsored by the United States, the World Bank and the United Nations will try to raise $400 million to $500 million to rebuild the crumbling West African country.

The rebel demand for Mr. Bryant’s ouster was made in a letter to the Economic Community of West African States, the top regional bloc, and signed by Sekou Conneh, civilian leader of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). It was co-signed by Liberia’s new foreign minister, Thomas Nimley, representing the smaller Movement for Democracy in Liberia, known as Model.

Mr. Nimley was not available for comment this week and was reported to be abroad. But a senior member of Model swiftly renounced his leader’s new demand. “We are not party to the statement that was issued,” said Samuel Wulue, now commerce minister. “Nothing will be done by Model to derail the peace process,” he said.

Mr. Bryant leads Liberia under an Aug. 18 power-sharing agreement meant to end 14 years of warlord power struggles that killed a quarter-million people in Liberia.

Mr. Conneh accused the interim head of government of failing to consult the former warring parties about the distribution of government jobs. In the letter, made public Monday, Mr. Conneh also complained of an overall “lack of transparency.”

Mr. Conneh leads one faction of the newly splintered LURD, which was the leading group in a three-year insurgency that drove elected President Charles Taylor from power on Aug. 11.

LURD split this month, when Mr. Conneh’s influential wife declared that her husband’s political ambitions were endangering Liberia’s peace agreement and announced that she was taking charge of the group.

The dispute between Mr. Conneh and his wife, Asha Keita-Conneh, remains unresolved, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday.

About 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers are in Liberia, charged with disarming the fighters. So far, only forces loyal to Mr. Taylor have given up their weapons.

Mr. Bryant, a low-profile businessman picked by the warring factions to lead Liberia to elections in 2005 after Mr. Taylor flew to exile in Nigeria, said late Monday the peace process was irreversible.

U.N. peacekeepers have deployed in and around Monrovia, but large zones of the volatile country remain in rebel hands. Fighting among the fractious rebel bands has stoked fears that conflict could erupt again.

About 460,000 Liberians remain refugees in their own country, according to U.N. estimates.

Meanwhile, as Chinese President Hu Jintao prepares for a three-nation tour of Africa, Liberia may benefit from a renewal of ties with Beijing. Although not on Mr. Hu’s itinerary — he will visit Egypt, Gabon and Algeria — Liberia is very much on China’s agenda after a rupture of ties that lasted more than a decade.

Liberian President Samuel K. Doe opted in the late 1980s to establish links with Taiwan, provoking the immediate severance of ties by Beijing with Monrovia.

China also withdrew from several projects, including the construction of a health ministry complex in an eastern suburb of the capital, and rice projects in the northern Bong and Lofa counties.

The thaw began in October when the postwar caretaker government in Liberia restored links with Beijing, paving the way for substantial increases in Chinese aid. China also has dispatched 500 troops to take part in the U.N. mission in Liberia, its largest contribution to a peacekeeping force.

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