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Still No Precise Plan for  Peaceful Transition in Liberia

The Liberian civil war has reached a turning point, with an agreement in place for the departure of President Charles Taylor, but no plan on exactly how that will happen.

Liberia's civil war began in August of 1999 with a brief clash between rebels and government forces. The next battle didn't happen until a year later.

At first, most Liberians did not take the rebel threat seriously, including President Taylor, who gave this account to foreign journalists several years ago.

"The issue of any rebel force believing that it can take power in this country, that's not going to happen," he claimed. "Yes you can make trouble like in life you have gnat flies, you have fleas, you have ticks, they all disturb people but anyone can cause disturbance if they want to."

Many Liberians even believed Mr. Taylor had invented the attacks from the north in order to get a United Nations ban on weapons sales to his government lifted.

But that began to change last year. Liberian opposition politician Dusty Wolokollie went to northern rebel-held areas, accompanied by European filmmakers.

Mr. Wolokollie brought back with him a videotape that has been widely copied and distributed around Liberia.

The videotape shows the rag-tag rebel force, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, in full control of the north, and intent on ending Mr. Taylor's rule throughout the country.

Now, although they were pushed back twice last month by government forces, the rebels are close to the capital, Monrovia. For now, there is a cease-fire, as part of the peace accord signed last month in Ghana. But that may not last unless Mr. Taylor leaves office as promised. And he says he won't do that until foreign peacekeepers arrive.

West Africa expert Ian Smillie is no supporter of Mr. Taylor, but he agrees with the president on that point.

"I think one of the problems with a number of movements in west Africa is that they all talk about peace, democracy and development, but we've seen so many come to power as in the case of Mr. Taylor when in fact they don't live up to those standards," said Mr. Smillie, who is a consultant with Partnership Africa Canada, a non-governmental organization. "The rhetoric isn't good enough anymore. I think what's necessary is a situation in Liberia where everybody can step back from the fight where there can be a longer term discussion about how the country will be managed and how democracy will return to Liberia. I think one of the worst things that could happen is if one of the rebel movements got to Monrovia before any peacekeepers did."

As might be expected, the rebels disagree. They issued a statement on Friday saying they do not want any peacekeeping troops to enter the country until after President Taylor has left.

Rebel spokesman Bodioh Siapoe says no one has anything to fear from a takeover by the rebels, who refer to themselves by their group's initials LURD.

"I would say that LURD is a liberating force," said Mr. Siapoe. "Charles Taylor since he became president has run all the political people out of the country. Taylor had created a list of wanted people that he wanted to be killed because he did not want any person to oppose him and so LURD came to the rescue."

Earlier this year, another rebel group emerged in the south-eastern timber producing region near the border with Ivory Coast. The group is known as MODEL, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia.

Both Liberian rebel groups, LURD and MODEL, talk about lofty ideals like reuniting Liberians and restoring justice. Those were the same ideals that Mr. Taylor brought with him in his own rebellion in the early 1990s.

Today, many in the international community accuse Mr. Taylor of running Liberia like a criminal venture for his own benefit. The Liberian president also faces an indictment for war crimes for his support of rebels in Sierra Leone.

But a Liberian opposition leader Commany Wisseh says he has been impressed by the conduct of rebel leaders at the talks in Ghana.

"For a long time, there are a number of people of LURD who had not been seen and this meeting brought them out, both LURD and MODEL," said Mr. Wisseh. "I think they are reasonable people I mean they're very strong about the issue of Taylor being the problem. A good number of the guys who are in the leadership at least who have come out now as the leaders are very intelligent and very reasonable."

Many of the rebel leaders are former enemies of Mr. Taylor from the civil war of the 1990s.

Last month's agreement was significant. But negotiators at the talks in Ghana still need to decide who will form the transitional government and when new elections can be held, if Mr. Taylor does leave power. And there is still work to do to put together an international peacekeeping force, and determine just when it will arrive and when Mr. Taylor will leave.