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New Liberia leader seeks US help as Taylor leaves
( 2003-08-12 14:09) (Agencies)

Liberia's new president offered his rebel foes an olive branch and sought U.S. help to maintain a fragile cease-fire as the man who helped shape the fortunes of the shattered West African nation began a life in exile.

Outgoing Liberian besieged President Charles Taylor talks to Liberia's new President Moses Zeh Blah during his swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in Monrovia, Liberia  Aug 12, 2003. [Xinhua]
Moses Blah, who until Monday was outgoing president Charles Taylor's deputy, wasted no time in offering the vacant vice-president's job to rebels who hold about three-quarters of the country. He urged the United States to intervene swiftly.

"My message to President Bush is: please President Bush come and save Liberia...please save us from this nightmare, we are suffering, we are dying," he said in an interview with CNN, calling on Marines on a U.S. task force off the coast to come ashore.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Washington the U.S. commander would go ashore in the next day or so to see how his force could help West African peacekeepers open a rebel-held port in the capital Monrovia and release aid needed to stave off a humanitarian crisis.

"We hope that all of the parties to this conflict will now recognize that it is time for the conflict to end," he said, adding: "We will be working hard to fix the cease-fire in place."

But much is likely to depend on how the rebels respond to Blah's overtures.

Taylor, a warlord who invaded in 1989, fought a brutal civil war and finally won power in a 1997 presidential election, stepped down on Monday.

Hemmed in by rebels and U.N. sanctions and wanted by a U.N.-backed war crimes court in neighboring Sierra Leone, he had little option.

Describing himself as a "sacrificial lamb," he flew into exile in Nigeria under pressure from a world which hopes his departure will speed an end to violence that has racked West Africa for nearly 14 years.


The rebels, who mistrust Taylor's old ally from the civil war of the 1990s, have already said the October date set by West African leaders for Blah to hand over to an interim president is too long.

Blah told CNN he had asked the rebels to lay down their arms and join him for talks in the capital.

"I'm inviting (the rebels) even now...to come to Monrovia and I'm giving the post of the vice president to the rebels...to come and join a government to help bring peace to Liberia," he said.

Hundreds of thousands of traumatized civilians fled the latest chapter of violence that killed 2,000 people in the country founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century as a haven of liberty.

The rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) had promised to withdraw from the port in Monrovia and hand over to Nigerian peacekeepers once Taylor had gone.

Contacts between U.S. officials and rebels were expected on Tuesday.

Powell said in Washington he did not expect a significant number of U.S. troops to help open the port.

"If the situation remains calm, as it has been for the last few hours, all this should be done in a rather open and peaceful way," he said. "If the cease-fire remains in place I would not expect any large commitment of U.S. forces."

Food is desperately short behind government lines, where prices have shot up at least five-fold. Things are not so bad behind rebel lines, because their fighters have looted stocks of rice in the port.

The United Nations reckons about 450,000 people in Monrovia are displaced while 1.3 million -- well over a third of Liberia's population -- are exposed to serious risk of disease. Few even venture to quantify the misery in the interior.

With looters out even before Taylor left, many Liberians are hoping the U.S. Marines come ashore as soon as possible.

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