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Sirleaf vows end to Liberia's violent past
Updated: 2006-01-17 09:01

Africa's first elected female head of state Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was sworn in Monday as war-battered Liberia's new president, promising a "fundamental break" with the West African nation's violent past and pledging to rebuild.

With U.S. Navy warships offshore for the first time since the civil war's end two years ago, and first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on hand in a show of support, the moment was met with thunderous applause from thousands of guests.

"We know that your vote was a vote for change, a vote for peace, security ... and we have heard you loudly," the 67-year-old Sirleaf said in her inaugural speech. "We recognize this change is not a change for change's sake, but a fundamental break with the past."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent congratulations, saying Sirleaf had a "historic mandate to lead the nation toward a future of lasting peace and stability."

Liberia's new President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, right, is helped with a sash by Liberian Senior Ambassador-at-large George W. Wallace, Jr., during her inauguration at the Capitol Building in Monrovia, Liberia, Monday, Jan. 16, 2006.
Liberia's new President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, right, is helped with a sash by Liberian Senior Ambassador-at-large George W. Wallace, Jr., during her inauguration at the Capitol Building in Monrovia, Liberia, Monday, Jan. 16, 2006.[AP]
Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, Liberia was prosperous and peaceful for more than a century, bolstered by abundant timber and diamond wealth. But back-to-back civil wars from 1989 to 2003 brought the country to its knees, killing 200,000 people and displacing half the nation's population of 3 million.

It is now one of the world's poorest countries, ranked 206th in terms of per capita income out of 208 countries on 2004 World Bank list.

Today, not even the capital has running water or electricity: the rich rely on generators, the poor on candles. Unemployment is 80 percent. "We have all suffered. The individual sense of deprivation is immense," Sirleaf said.

She acknowledged the task of rebuilding would be coupled with high expectations, but called for patience.

"The task of reconstructing our devastating economy is awesome," she said. "There will be no quick fix, yet we have the potential to promote a healthy economy in which Liberians and international investors can prosper."

Ensuring Liberia remains peaceful, though, will be Sirleaf's most pressing and perhaps most difficult task.

George Weah, the soccer star who lost the November runoff, was backed by most of the country's top warlords and faction leaders. He grudgingly accepted defeat and attended the inauguration.

Several lawmakers in the new legislature, including the House speaker, are under a U.N. travel ban and assets freeze for constituting "a threat to peace." One newly appointed senator ordered his troops to hack off the ears of a captured president in 1990. Others are allies of one-time warlord and president Charles Taylor, who was forced from power in 2003 as rebels shelled the capital.

Another crucial task: assuring the future of 100,000 ex-combatants who laid down arms last year. Many of them are prowling the streets, unemployed.

For now, Sirleaf's government is backed by 15,000 U.N. troops. A similar U.N. force pulled out of neighboring Sierra Leone in the final days of 2005, completing a successful, five-year mission that restored the peace.

Many see Taylor as one of the biggest threats. Exiled to Nigeria, he has been accused by some U.N. officials of trying to meddle in Liberian affairs, mostly by telephone.

Taylor is wanted by a U.N.-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone for his role in fueling that country's civil war, but Nigeria has refused to hand him over.

In an interview with NBC's "Today" show broadcast Monday, Sirleaf suggested she would like to see Taylor put on trial.

"Mr. Taylor has always said he wanted his day in court to defend himself. We should grant him that privilege," she said.

Rice said she was confident Taylor would be handed over to the Sierra Leone court eventually. He "is through raping and pillaging this country, and the Liberian people are trying to look forward," Rice told reporters on a flight to Monrovia.

In her address, Sirleaf promised to stamp out corruption a key step to win over skeptical foreign donors.

She also called on Liberians abroad and refugees in West Africa to return and rebuild. The U.N. says nearly 400,000 Liberians are displaced, both inside the country and the region.

Born in Liberia in 1938, Sirleaf worked her way through college in the United States by mopping floors and waiting tables. She graduated with a master's degree in public administration from Harvard in 1971 and took top jobs in Liberia, including finance minister, and senior positions at Citibank, the World Bank and the U.N.

Twice imprisoned in Liberia in the 1980s for political reasons, she returned during a break in fighting in 1997 to run for president. She lost to Taylor, but tried again last fall, emerging victorious.

On Monday, standing in front of the Liberian flag with her left hand on a Bible, Sirleaf took the oath of office in a ceremony attended by thousands of Liberians and scores of foreign dignitaries, including Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and South Africa's Thabo Mbeki.

Armed U.N. peacekeepers surveyed the scene from atop surrounding buildings with binoculars.

"It is time for us, regardless of our political affiliations or persuasions, to come together to heal and rebuild our nation," she said.

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