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Liberia's Taylor Should Step Down, says UN Refugee Chief - 2003-05-19

The head of the U.N. refugee agency, Ruud Lubbers, says Liberian President Charles Taylor should be forced to step down for the sake of all West Africans. Mr. Lubbers is ending a week-long visit to the region.

Mr. Lubbers accused Mr. Taylor of being the main problem for West Africa, where there are 400,000 refugees as a result of ongoing wars.

He also said the cycle of violence in the region will not stop until a U.N. peacekeeping force is sent to Liberia. The U.N. refugee chief spoke Sunday in Guinea, amid reports of heavy fighting on the border between Liberia and Guinea.

Rebels have been closing in on the Liberian capital, Monrovia, from several directions in recent months. The Liberian conflict has also spilled over into western Ivory Coast.

The United Nations this month extended sanctions against Mr. Taylor and his government for its support of rebel groups in neighboring countries.

Klaas van Walraven of Leiden University in the Netherlands, an academic expert on Liberia, says Mr. Taylor also faces pressure from a U.N.-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone, where he faces possible indictment.

"I think, his position has weakened considerably, not only because of the fighting in Liberia, but also because of the developments in Sierra Leone, where the criminal tribunal is trying to prosecute war criminals," he said. "It has been known that Taylor housed several of them, including Sam Bockarie, who is now dead."

Prosecutors at the court have also accused Mr. Taylor of ordering the killing of Mr. Bockarie's family members.

Mr. Taylor also faces mounting internal political pressure. A youth wing of Liberia's ruling National Patriotic Party recently called for Mr. Taylor to agree to a power-sharing government with rebels.

State radio in Liberia says President Taylor will lead a government delegation to Ghana on June 2 to hold talks with Liberian rebels. The rebels say they will agree to a cease-fire only if Mr. Taylor steps down.

Mr. van Walraven warns that, even if Mr. Taylor does reduce his power, that will not guarantee a return to stability.

"Of course, Taylor himself is part of the whole makeup of political violence in Liberia and the western fringe of West Africa," he said. "However, things in Liberia during the last 10 years have deteriorated so substantially that one should be very cautious in concluding that with Taylor leaving power, stability would immediately return to the Liberian polity."

Presidential elections in Liberia are scheduled for October 14. But given the current climate, the international contact group on Liberia is now suggesting the vote should be postponed.