Thursday, August 21, 2003

ACCRA, Ghana — Liberia’s rebels and government chose a gentle-mannered businessman yesterday to lead a transition administration that aims to guide the country out of 14 years of civil war.

The announcement came at the close of 78 days of peace talks with international mediators.

Retired Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar of Nigeria, the chief mediator of the talks, announced the selection of businessman Gyude Bryant to oversee the two-year, power-sharing accord for Liberia, and sent warring parties home with a mandate to support it.

“The first step of unifying the people starts from today,” Gen. Abubakar said. “Do not let your people down.”

Selection of the transitional government follows Monday’s signing of a peace accord, made possible by warlord President Charles Taylor’s Aug. 11 resignation and flight into exile in Nigeria as rebels laid siege to the capital.

The interim government is to take power from Mr. Taylor’s designated successor, former Vice President Moses Blah, on Oct. 14 and yield to an elected government in 2005.

As part of the peace accord, Liberia’s rebels and government agreed not to vie for the interim government’s top posts themselves. Instead, combatants picked the interim leaders from a list of nominees submitted by political parties and civic groups in deliberations that ended only before dawn yesterday.

Mr. Bryant, a 54-year-old heavy-equipment dealer, was seen as the most neutral among the three candidates for the chairmanship.

“I have lived there throughout all these problems, and I see myself as a healer,” Mr. Bryant, a large man noted for his gentle manner, said early yesterday.

He pledged to work closely with the United Nations and other international agencies in the two-year transition government.

His priorities include demobilizing fighters, many of them boys or young men, who grew up with assault weapons. “We have to disarm these young men, and let them know the war is over,” he said.

Although not prominent, Mr. Bryant has been influential in Liberian politics. In 1997, he united six political parties in an unsuccessful bid to block Mr. Taylor from winning the presidency after a devastating 1989-96 civil war that Mr. Taylor started.

The combatants picked Wesley Johnson as vice chairman.

In Monrovia, the U.N. envoy for Liberia said he would ask the Security Council for 15,000 troops to secure the peace — what would be the United Nations’ largest deployment in the world.

Envoy Jacques Klein also said he had asked that American forces remain to train a new Liberian army. “We are hoping the U.S. will take it on,” he said.

The Security Council already has authorized a U.N. mission to take the place of a 2-week-old West African-led force, but left unstated how many troops it will send.

Fewer than 200 U.S. troops are on the ground, in a rapid-reaction force on standby to aid the West African force as necessary, and as liaisons with the West African force.

President Bush has pledged that the Americans will be gone by Oct. 1.

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