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Liberian Opposition Leaders Meet to Decide Future of Country - 2002-07-10

Liberian opposition leaders and rebels meeting in Burkina Faso's capital are trying to find common ground in an effort to move Liberia forward.

There are wide differences between the strategies proposed by the armed and unarmed opposition to bring about political change in Liberia.

But there was a consensus going into the gathering that President Charles Taylor should step down, if the country, with living conditions rated by the United Nations as the second-worst in the world, is to move forward.

Opponents charge Mr. Taylor has done little in his five years in power to rebuild Liberia's economy and infrastructure, following a devastating eight-year civil war.

The meeting, called the Liberian Leadership Forum, began Monday and is scheduled through Thursday. It has brought together opposition leaders from Liberia and abroad, as well as rebels with the group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy.

This is the first time LURD representatives have appeared at a public forum since the start of their armed campaign three years ago.

The gathering has drawn a strong condemnation from the Liberian government. Taylor administration officials say the opponents should be gathering in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, not in Burkina Faso. The government plans to hold its own reconciliation forum in Liberia later this month.

Chairing the forum in Ouagadougou is Liberian former interim-President Amos Sawyer. He said a meeting like this would be impossible to hold in Liberia, given what he said is Charles Taylor's spotty human rights record.

"He is calling for a reconciliation conference later this month when he has imposed a state of emergency; when he has journalists in jail. He is going around inviting Liberians who are abroad to come home as if to come to their slaughter. There is no way that a meeting of this sort could be held in Liberia under the tyranny of Charles Taylor," Mr. Sawyer said.

President Taylor declared a state of emergency in February as rebel attacks came within a few kilometers of Monrovia. Since then, fear has continued to grow among the government and residents of the capital that a rebel assault on the city may be imminent.

Laveli Supowood, a member of the rebel delegation at the Ouagadougou meeting, tells VOA his group has a specific target: Charles Taylor. He said other people in his government have nothing to fear.

"Members of Taylor's government are Liberians. We are not holding all of them as criminals. We are holding Taylor personally responsible. That is what we are doing. We believe that without Taylor there would be fresh air for a dialogue. It is only Taylor that continues to embarrass our country," Mr. Supowood said.

Liberia has been under U.N. sanctions since last year, due to the Taylor government's support of rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone. The sanctions were extended this year, officials said, because Liberia continues to harbor some Sierra Leonean rebels in its territory.

Diplomats said Mr. Taylor has been using the Sierra Leoneans to fight LURD. Officials have continued to warn that the conflict in Liberia threatens to destabilize the region. Relief agencies said the fighting has displaced tens of thousands of people.

The opposition meeting in Ouagadougou comes as the Liberian government deals with rebel advances and growing isolation from the international community.

The government of Burkina Faso was at one time a major arms supplier to Mr. Taylor, but it has distanced itself from Monrovia. In hosting the Ouagadougou meeting this week, Burkinabe officials expressed regret that they had once supported the Liberian leader.