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Pressure Grows on Liberian President to Step Down - 2003-06-19

Prospects for the peace process under way in Liberia are said to hinge to a large degree on whether President Charles Taylor will agree to relinquish power. But, it appears unlikely he will do so willingly, even though discontent and pressure on his presidency is mounting.

Under the cease-fire agreement signed Tuesday by envoys for two rebel groups and the Liberian government, peace negotiations are to take place to establish a transitional government without Mr. Taylor.

The rebels already accuse government forces of violating the cease-fire on several remote fronts, but Defense Minister Daniel Chea says patience is needed before the truce takes full effect.

Rebels warn they will resume fighting if Mr. Taylor refuses to step down. Early indications are that Mr. Taylor intends to remain in power. A presidential spokesman has said only the ceasefire is binding. He has also said the peace process must include Mr. Taylor to succeed.

Last week, on a visit to his private farm outside Monrovia accompanied by militia fighters, Mr. Taylor had a similar message, speaking of himself in the third person.

"What the international community needs and what Liberians want in the West African subregion is peace and stability," he said. "Charles Taylor sees himself as a valuable part of the process."

Complicating matters for Mr. Taylor is a U.S. and European-backed indictment for war crimes by a court in Sierra Leone where he is accused of supporting rebels who are notorious for maiming their victims.

A court official read the charges against Mr. Taylor on the day of his indictment, June 4.

"His indictment accuses him of bearing the greatest responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and serious violations of international, humanitarian law within the territory of Sierra Leone since 30 November 1996," the official said.

Mr. Taylor has vowed Liberia's peace process will fail unless the indictment is lifted.

"It's a political decision. They made it. Washington was consulted. London was consulted," he said. "They did it and they're going to have to fix it. That whole stigma must be removed. How they do it is up to them."

Mr. Taylor is accused of being at the center of West Africa's arms, diamond and timber smuggling and insurgencies in Sierra Leone, western Ivory Coast and Guinea since he launched his own rebellion in Liberia in 1989. He denies the charges, saying they are part of a U.S.-led plot to remove him from power.

Mr. Taylor also accuses the United States of funding Liberian rebels through its support of Guinea's military. He has called the rebels a nuisance comparable to flies that can be swatted away. The rebels now control most of Liberia but have repeatedly been unable to enter Monrovia.

A U.S.-based spokesman for the Liberian rebels, Bodioh Siapoe, accuses Mr. Taylor of being a failed leader since he won elections in 1997.

"All the promises he made during the political season he has failed to deliver - the political beacons that he and his administration promised the Liberian people," he said. "As we speak there is no electricity in the country, there is no safe drinking water. I mean how can you call yourself a leader of a nation and you could care less for the basic necessities of life?"

Stephen Ellis, a historian who wrote a book about Mr. Taylor's rise to power, The Mask of Anarchy, says he is much more gangster than politician.

"He's really in a rather unusual category. I think even in West Africa, he's in a category of his own," he said. "He's not necessarily the most brutal leader that West Africa has ever seen, although I suppose he might be coming into that category. He's not really a politician, he's much more comparable to somebody like a Mafia boss like a traditional gangster type kind of like Al Capone. He's a very intelligent man but in the end he's not really interested in political types of deals. He's interested in money and power and entertaining it through fairly gangster-like methods."

Anthony Niranto, a Liberian refugee in Ivory Coast, blames Mr. Taylor for all his misery.

"I don't like Taylor. It's Taylor who destroyed my life, now my life is difficult," he said. "Nothing is possible for me. Anywhere I'm going there's nowhere for me. So I'm begging the United Nations to find a way and move Mr. Charles Taylor so our country will be free. For long, I left my education because of war. I have nothing to do in Cote d'Ivoire, I'm just suffering."

Mr. Taylor acknowledges there is a humanitarian crisis in Liberia, but he says it is because his government has been under siege by foreign-backed rebels. He also says the false charges against him have turned all Liberians into victims of the international community.

Many Liberians interviewed by journalists say they want the United States to intervene and remove Mr. Taylor by force, if he refuses to leave power.

Liberia was founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century. For nearly 150 years, it remained a virtual American colony. During the cold war, Liberia was a close U.S. ally in Africa.

Many Liberians say Americans should act in Liberia as the French did in Ivory Coast and the British in Sierra Leone, by sending troops to help end a civil war.

Earlier this week, a U.S. amphibious assault ship carrying more than 2,000 Marines arrived off Liberia's coast, triggering hope among many Liberians of a possible U.S. intervention. But U.S. officials say the truce has eased tensions and that the ship has been ordered back to the United States. The ship was returning home from Iraq and officials say they didn't want to keep the members of the crew waiting off Liberia's coast for too long.