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Liberian Peace Talks Start in Ghana - 2003-06-12

Liberian peace talks have begun in Ghana after West African mediators got assurances from all warring sides that they would stop fighting.

The talks have been repeatedly delayed since an opening ceremony last week in Accra.

First, a U.N.-backed court in Sierra Leone indicted Liberian President Charles Taylor for war crimes just as he arrived in Ghana, forcing him to quickly return to Liberia.

Then, a rebel offensive on Monrovia led to the suspension of the talks before they started.

But the talks were able to begin in earnest when mediators returned from Liberia, where they received assurances from rebels and the government that they would stop fighting.

Now the mediators are trying to get a formal cease-fire signed by the end of the week by envoys of the warring parties gathered in the town of Akosombo. Mr. Taylor will not take part directly. He says the stigma of the indictment against him must be removed for the peace talks to succeed.

Meanwhile, the rebels say they are taking part in the talks in Ghana so they can demand Mr. Taylor's immediate resignation.

Two rebel groups control more than two thirds of Liberia, but they have been unable to reach Monrovia's center. Their offensive onto the capital stopped Tuesday, but it created a humanitarian catastrophe. Foreign aid workers, most of whom have left Liberia, say the fighting displaced about 100,000 people.

Mr. Taylor has been in power since elections in 1997, which were held eight years after he launched his own rebellion. During that war, more than a dozen peace deals were signed and broken.

Stephen Ellis, author of The Mask of Anarchy, a book about the Liberian war during the 1990s, says even if Mr. Taylor is forced to step down, it will not mean peace for Liberia.

"I really think that Charles Taylor now can not escape from the situation he is in," he said. "I think we will see an end to the rule of Charles Taylor in Liberia in the very near future. Now unfortunately, that is not going to bring in itself peace or stability to either Liberia or West Africa. Unless there is a major international intervention in which the United States will have to play a leading role I am afraid there is going to be continued instability in Liberia and the region. I must say that at the moment I can see no signs of the U.S. being prepared to make that sort of effort."

The State Department has called for the establishment of a government of national unity and new elections.

Liberia was founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century as a haven of liberty, but it has been thrown into chaos by years of civil war. The current insurgency started in 1999.