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Liberian President Agrees to Step Down

Liberian President Charles Taylor says he will step down, if an international peacekeeping force is sent to end the four-year conflict in his country. Mr. Taylor's statement follows increasing pressure from the United States for him to leave Liberia and discussions with Nigeria about possibly offering him asylum.

In a speech Friday at the presidential palace in the capital, Monrovia, Mr. Taylor says he is now working to ensure a smooth transition.

"Before I transit, I think it is important that peacekeepers be present," he said.

The U.S. government, which is considering contributing to such a force, has called on Mr. Taylor to resign before it deploys any forces.

But in his speech, which he made to Liberia's religious leaders, Mr. Taylor said he still has an important role to play to make sure there is no renewed fighting, including from pro-government forces.

"I will continue to pursue all of the pronouncements that I have made that I will step down and [ensure a] transitional arrangement in an orderly fashion, when there are international forces here that will guard you from all other forces that may have major discontent with the process," said Charles Taylor.

But spokesmen for the government as well as spokesmen for the rebels were quick to say there was nothing new in the presidential statement. Both sides agree Mr. Taylor has to leave office. What they do not agree on is when. The rebels want him out now.

The rebels, who control most of Liberia but not Monrovia, have said they would accept a U.S.-led force in the west African nation, which was founded by freed American slaves, if they had guarantees Mr. Taylor would leave the country. In the meantime, rebels say they are continuing to take part in Liberian peace talks in Ghana to form a transitional government, without Mr. Taylor.

Officials close to Mr. Taylor say they will refuse any rebel presence in this government.

Negotiations are also continuing between Liberian and Nigerian officials over the possibility of granting Mr. Taylor asylum.

Mr. Taylor has been hesitant to accept such an offer, because he also faces possible arrest on a war crimes indictment for his support of rebels in Sierra Leone.

Mr. Taylor is also under United Nations sanctions for smuggling weapons, diamonds and timber, charges he denies.