Talks aimed at bringing reconciliation to Liberia are getting under way Thursday in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
The talks bring together Liberian government officials and exiled members of the unarmed opposition. The rebel group known as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD, told VOA Thursday their representatives would not attend the meeting.
Members of the Liberian opposition who are in exile have been reluctant to return home, fearing harassment by President Charles Taylor's security forces. Those attending the meeting in Abuja include representatives of opposition political parties, civic leaders, and political opponents who have been living outside Liberia.
The discussions are being held under the auspices of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States. They are aimed at preparing for a reconciliation forum that is expected to take place in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, sometime in July.
ECOWAS leaders meeting at a summit in Senegal last December urged President Taylor to hold the conference in the run-up to next year's presidential elections.
The talks in Abuja, which are expected to last three days, were originally meant to bring Liberian government officials face-to-face with members of LURD. Charles Bennie, a spokesman for the rebel group, says the insurgents are not attending because they did not receive their invitation in time to prepare for the meeting. Mr. Bennie also says the rebels will not engage in negotiations with Charles Taylor.
Liberian Information Minister Reginald Goodridge says the Abuja gathering was never meant to serve as a peace conference between the government and the rebels. "What is happening in Abuja is purely information gathering, fact-finding, and a preparatory meeting to bring together people who still do not feel comfortable coming to Monrovia," he said. "Abuja is affording them the opportunity to go there and put on the table what their concerns are."
Over the past month, the government has claimed LURD rebels have attacked areas north of Monrovia. Gunfire has caused tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.
President Taylor last month declared a state of emergency. Critics say the action has allowed members of Mr. Taylor's security forces to commit human rights abuses.
The United States has criticized the government of Charles Taylor for what it says is a poor human rights record. A report released March 4 said Mr. Taylor's forces were responsible for political and extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, and arbitrary arrests.
The Liberian government responded to the charges on Tuesday by releasing 21 political prisoners who had been held on treason and other charges.
The meeting in Abuja and the planned reconciliation conference in July come as President Taylor faces mounting pressure, both from the armed opposition and from political groups.
Liberians continue to suffer under living conditions described by the United Nations as the second worst in the world, after Sierra Leone.