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Liberia's New President Expresses Hope for Peace - 2003-10-16

Liberia's new transitional leader, Gyude Bryant, says he is confident all warring factions support his peace mission, but there are reports of continuing skirmishes in the southeast timber region.

Mr. Bryant says he does not believe warring factions, which signed a peace agreement with the government last August, will "bring down their own house."

The factions chose the low-profile businessman to lead Liberia until elections in 2005, bringing renewed optimism that 15 years of nearly continuous civil war could end. Mr. Bryant took office Tuesday.

But two days later, one of the Liberian rebel groups, MODEL, said its positions had been attacked by militia forces in the southeast, near forest land of the Oriental Timber Company.

A rebel leader downplayed the skirmish, but said he thought allies of former President Charles Taylor were behind the fighting. Mr. Taylor now lives in exile in Nigeria, but there are fears that, using his cell phone, he is continuing to command loyalist fighters in Liberia.

Former Defense Minister Daniel Chea, who has been offered the same post by the new government, says Mr. Taylor is not behind the fighting.

"What is happening right now, and it has nothing to do with former President Charles Taylor; let me just say this, as long as U.N. forces are not fully deployed in and around the country, there will be chances of skirmishes here and there," he said. "It's just one of these things, when there are pockets of people who remain in their positions and every now and then, there will be a skirmish. So, I hope to deal with these in the next few days."

He says he met with MODEL commanders on Wednesday to discuss the reports of skirmishes.

In a separate development, Moses Blah, the former vice president who briefly succeeded Mr. Taylor after his departure in August, held a brief ceremony Thursday to hand over to the United Nations weapons held by the pro-government militia.

Mr. Blah said it was important to show that the militia behind the former government is serious about peace.

"We have started to turn the arms over to the United Nations ahead of disarmament, because we are the government, and we decided to take the lead in making Monrovia arms free," he said. "We are not fighting anymore, and this is why we are giving these arms to the United Nations."

The U.N. mission in Liberia says it wants to formally start the disarmament process in mid-November. There are an estimated 50,000 armed fighters still roaming throughout Liberia. Most U.N. peacekeepers remain in or around Monrovia.