Liberia's leader cancels plans to personally notify lawmakers of his intent to resign

Thursday, August 7th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ Embattled President Charles Taylor canceled an appearance before Congress on Thursday in which he was expected to announce his successor, but officials insist he will still leave office as planned.

Lawmakers milling outside the bullet-scarred Congress building said they still expected to receive and debate a letter from Taylor officially notifying them of his intention to relinquish power and naming his replacement.

Taylor will not appear in person, however, for fear that could inflame the war-ruined country's political instability, said Vice President Moses Blah, a top candidate for the president's job along with House Speaker Nyundueh Monkomana.

``If he does that today, between now and Monday, there will be a power vacuum,'' Blah told The Associated Press.

Under enormous international pressure and with his capital besieged by rebels pressing home a bloody 3-year battle to oust him, Taylor has promised to cede power on Monday and go into exile in Nigeria.

The president has pledged repeatedly to resign only to dodge or renege on his promises. But his spokesman said Taylor will hand over power on Monday as planned.

``We are on course on the president relinquishing power,'' said Vaanii Passawe.

Taylor, a Libyan-trained ex-guerrilla fighter blamed for much of the bloody strife that has embroiled Liberia for almost 14 years, has been reduced to a last redoubt in central Monrovia as rebels press two months of siege of his capital.

Fighting has split Monrovia into rebel and government sides, killed well over 1,000 civilians outright and left hunger and epidemics raging among the 1.3 million residents and refugees.

Overnight, a plane carrying an arms shipment landed at the government-held airport 30 miles outside of Monrovia, workers contacted there by telephone said on condition of anonymity.

The United Nations in March 2001 imposed an arms embargo on Liberia to punish Taylor for trading weapons for diamonds from rebels in Sierra Leone.

The workers said West African peacekeepers based at the airfield impounded the war materiel after an argument with Liberian military officials. Liberia's Defense Minister Daniel Chea was seen meeting Thursday morning with peace force officials, they said.

The force's Ghanaian chief of staff, Col. Theophilus Tawiah, said he had no knowledge of any arms shipment. Paasawe, the Taylor spokesman, also said he was unaware of a weapons delivery.

In a break with past practice, government fighters at checkpoints prohibited journalists from traveling up the airport road.

West African leaders have promised an eventual 3,250-strong peace force, and nearly 500 Nigerian soldiers have arrived at the airport outside Monrovia.

The United States has been under pressure to take the lead on helping to restore peace in Liberia, a nation founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century, but Washington insists that American involvement will be limited.

On Wednesday, helicopters brought in the first seven U.S. Marines to support the steadily building West African peace force. The Marines flew from a three-ship U.S. Navy group carrying 2,000 Marines and 2,500 sailors off Liberia to coordinate U.S. logistical support for the West African soldiers.

Tawiah said on Wednesday the regional force _ now nearly 500 strong and with five armored vehicles _ would have sufficient strength Thursday to leave their base at the airport and begin patrolling Monrovia on the government side. But peacekeepers would not immediately deploy in the rebel-held port area.

No peacekeepers were seen moving into Monrovia at midday Thursday, and it was unclear if the U.S. Marines also would move into the contested capital.

President Bush said no larger American force will go ashore until Taylor leaves the country. ``We would like Taylor out,'' he said Wednesday in Crawford, Texas.

Taylor has repeatedly hedged on when he would take up an offer of asylum in Nigeria _ setting new conditions for his departure in recent days. His government has said he would leave only after enough foreign peacekeepers are on the ground, and if a war crimes indictment against him is dropped.

Nigerian officials told The Associated Press that the Liberian leader had indicated he hoped to leave around Aug. 16 or 17. But South African President Thabo Mbeki said Taylor assured him he would leave within 24 hours of handing over power Monday.

Nigerian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they and others were trying to speed Taylor's exit. Nigeria said in a statement from President Olusegun Obasanjo's office that it was ``finalizing arrangements'' for Taylor's departure.

Jacques Paul Klein, the top U.N. envoy for Liberia, urged Taylor to leave before he is arrested. A U.N.-backed court has indicted Taylor on war crimes charges for allegedly supporting rebels during a brutal decade-long war in neighboring Sierra Leone.

``The warrant never goes away, and the court will be there for a number of years. So go while the getting is good,'' he advised Taylor.

Monrovia's residents are eager for peacekeepers to intervene, though the West African force and tiny U.S. team stirred little notice. It was good, many Liberians said, but not good enough.

``It's too slow and too little,'' said Thomas Koko, a hotel laundry worker. ``People are starving ... We need peacekeepers in the port, in our city _ now.''

Rebels have told the West African force they are willing to handover the port, but to peacekeepers and not Liberia's government.