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Reluctant Taylor prepares to leave Liberia
( 2003-08-11 08:58) (Agencies)

Liberia's President Charles Taylor said on Sunday he was being forced into exile as he prepared to step down under US pressure to end 14 years of strife that have spawned chaos in West Africa.

Liberian President Charles Taylor records an address to the nation on the eve of his expected departure from office, in the Liberian capital Monrovia Aug. 10, 2003. Taylor is due to officially hand over power to his current Vice-President Moses Blah on Monday. [AP]
At least 2,000 people have been killed since June in the latest bout of blood-letting to grip the capital of a country that was founded in hope by freed 19th century American slaves and is now a pariah state plagued by drugged up young killers.

In his farewell address before handing over to Vice-President Moses Blah on Monday, Taylor accused the United States of supporting rebels fighting to oust him and said he was being forced into exile.

"I can no longer see you suffering, the suffering is enough, you have been good people. I love you from the bottom of my heart," Taylor said, his face worn and tired, his beard tinged with gray. "I say God willing, I will be back."

Controlling only part of his own capital, told to step down by President Bush and wanted for war crimes by a UN-backed tribunal in Sierra Leone, Taylor had little choice but to step down or fight to the death.

Liberian President Charles Taylor's personal Hummer H2 drives out of his presidential home in Monrovia  August 10, 2003. Taylor said in a farewell address that he was being forced into exile and hoped that one day he would return. Taylor, who holds barely a quarter of Liberia and is under US pressure to go, reiterated his pledge to hand over to Vice President Moses Blah on August 11. [Reuters]
Blah said he would invite leaders of rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) for talks as soon as he took office and was "100 percent sure" of ending the desperate humanitarian crisis.

"This is over. We should lay down the guns and smoke the peace pipe," said Blah, whom the rebels have said they will reject as just another of Taylor's old guard.

The arrival of West African peacekeepers last week fulfilled Taylor's condition for bowing out. US warships wait offshore with 2,300 Marines. But Washington has not decided if it will commit ground troops.


Taylor has not said when he will leave, but South Africa's ambassador said he would go at the same time as leaders, including President Thabo Mbeki, after Monday's handover.

Taylor has said he would accept a Nigerian asylum offer and two flights carrying family members and property -- including three cars -- landed on Sunday in the steamy southeast Nigerian town of Calabar, officials there told Reuters.

West Africa's leaders are keen to see the back of Taylor, accused of helping plot conflicts that have left a quarter of a million dead in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast.

Scores of fighters emerged from both sides of the frontline in Monrovia on Sunday, hugging, joking and swapping cigarettes and clothes on the bridges where battle raged a week ago.

"Even if our commanders tell us to fight, I personally will not fight. There is no need for war," said Taylor's young General "T-Boy" as he chatted with LURD commanders.

But while the guns are silent in the capital, there is little sign of a let-up in the dire humanitarian crisis here. The United Nations estimates that at least 450,000 people are displaced in Monrovia -- many of them hungry and sick.

Markets have only a few green leaves for sauce on sale. Prices for the staple rice have risen by five times or more.

"We thank God the bullets have stopped," said Moifee Sombai, standing on a street where stray gunfire killed many. "But now it is the silent weapons. We are dying silently."


The situation might ease if the rebels reopened the port, where they have already pillaged supplies of food aid.

But they have been reluctant to relinquish their hold on ground captured in recent fighting while they say they are still unsure that the wily Taylor will fulfil his pledge to step down and leave the country.

Taylor won 1997 elections after emerging as the strongest warlord during seven years of civil war. But he never achieved the clean image he sought as evidence mounted of Liberia's role in other conflicts in the region.

Taylor blamed the international community, and especially the United States, for maintaining an arms embargo that hamstrung efforts to fight his own rebels. He said LURD had been given U.S. financing via Guinea.

"This is an American war. LURD is a surrogate force," he said on Sunday. "They can call off their dogs now."

West African officials say that Blah's stay will be short, possibly just days, before a new interim president is chosen at peace talks in Ghana among Taylor's officials, rebels and squabbling politicians.

"We'll not recognize Blah's presidency, but we know there's very little we can do about it in the interim," LURD's military adviser Joe Wylie told Reuters in Ghana.

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