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Liberia Talks Prepare Ground for Reconciliation Conference - 2002-03-17

Talks aimed at bringing reconciliation to Liberia have ended in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Representatives of the government and the unarmed opposition concluded their two-day meeting with a call for an end to hostilities by the government and rebels.

The talks brought Liberian government officials together with leaders of the unarmed opposition, a number of whom have been living in exile saying they fear persecution by President Charles Taylor's security forces.

The aim of the gathering in Abuja was to begin preparations for a reconciliation conference that is expected to take place in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, in July, ahead of next year's presidential elections.

At the end of the meeting, participants issued a statement saying all sides agreed the government needs to work on improving security in the country. They said better security conditions are necessary if any of the exiled opponents are to return for the reconciliation conference.

Among those attending the Abuja gathering was former rebel leader Alhaji Kromah, a leading exiled opponent of President Taylor. "That conference cannot be a reality without the preconditions for security," he said. "We have specifically concluded in our document that we need the disarmament of all armed groups in Liberia."

President Taylor declared a state of emergency last month, saying insurgents with the group known as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD, had stepped up attacks on areas north of Monrovia. Gunfire displaced tens of thousands of people.

Human rights advocates have accused the Taylor government's security forces of using the state of emergency to make arbitrary arrests and harass political opponents and journalists. The government says it must keep the state of emergency for the sake of national security.

LURD representatives did not attend the gathering in Abuja. A spokesman for the group said representatives would not participate in the talks because they did not receive their invitation in time to prepare for the meeting.

The talks were organized by ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States.