Washington, DC — Given an ultimatum by rebels to voluntarily step down from office or be ousted by force, Liberian President Charles Taylor is believed to have abandoned the presidential palace on Monday for a compound in the Monrovia suburb of Congotown near Liberia's international airport.
Taylor has made no public statement since last Friday when he gathered reporters in the capital Monrovia to talk about what he called a "failed" coup backed by foreign powers. "The attempt was foiled because the generals of the army refused," he said. Taylor made the statement just 24 hours after the United Nations-backed Sierra Leone Special Court announced his indictment for war crimes and issued an international warrant for his arrest.
When the indictment was announced, Taylor was in Ghana participating in peace talks with Liberian rebels that had been arranged by the 15-nation Economic Community for West Africa (Ecowas). Almost immediately after news of the indictment was released, the rebel drive into Monrovia intensified, with shells dropping in suburban Monrovian neighborhoods by Sunday night. That same night, the country's largest rebel organization, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd) gave Taylor until Wednesday to resign or face a offensive aimed at capturing the capital and removing him militarily.
"We want the international community to ask him to step down so as to avoid bloodshed," Lurd chairman Sehon Damate Conneh Jr. told the Associated Press Sunday in Rome, where Conneh was meeting with the Catholic Sant'Egidio Community, which mediates world conflicts. Conneh said the Lurd thrust was pausing on the edge of Monrovia to give the Liberian leader the opportunity to get out of the way. "If Taylor doesn't step down [in three days], we would go in," Conneh said.
Taylor's family was reportedly evacuated by air from Monrovia to Ghana Saturday night. But Taylor plans to stay in Monrovia, according to the charge d'affaires in Liberia's Washington, D.C. embassy, Aaron B. Kollie. "He will resist any attempt by these armed guerillas and terrorists to overrun the city," Kollie told AllAfrica.
Meanwhile, on Monday, as French helicopters began a dawn evacuation of Americans and Europeans from the Liberian capital, the State Department called on rebels to honor their ceasefire pledge and refrain from attacking civilians. "We are committed to the full protection of our citizens and expect the government of Liberia and the rebels to honor their international obligations to do the same," department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said.
About 100 Americans who had gathered overnight at the U.S. Embassy were air-lifted out of Liberia. Evacuees also included Lebanese and Indian nationals and persons holding dual U.S. and Liberian citizenship. Some Ivorians, Egyptians and Africans of other nationalities were also evacuated, according to press reports. U.S. Ambassador John Blaney and a handful of Marine guards and U.S. Special Forces remain.
On Monday, President Bush notified Congress that an assessment team and standby response and evacuation force of approximately 35 U.S. military personnel from the U.S. European Command had been "pre-positioned" in Freetown, Sierra Leone on June 7. They moved into Monrovia, Liberia the next day to augment the Embassy security forces.
Military personnel were also sent to Nouakchott, Mauritania where a Sunday morning coup attempt accompanied by heavy fighting took place. "Several fixed wing aircraft and their aircrew have been pre-positioned in Dakar, Senegal in order to shorten the response time should an evacuation of American citizens from either Liberia or Mauritania be required," Bush said in a letter to lawmakers.
Although these forces are equiped for combat, said Bush, "these movements were undertaken solely for the purpose of protecting American citizens and property."
'Non-essential' embassy personnel have been ordered out, but the embassy will remain open and continue to provide emergency services to American citizens, Reeker said. He restated Friday's official warning against travel to Liberia.
Despite the pledge to delay their assault on the capital, the Lurd offensive has apparently continued, and conditions have worsened for Monrovia residents. "Monrovia city centre remained shuttered up, with no water or electricity and all petrol stations closed," the UN agency Irin reported late Monday. "The price of a 50 kg bag of rice on the black market nearly doubled from US$20 to between $30 and $40, while the price of a gallon of petrol shot up from US$3 to US$7."
U.S. government hopes for a negotiated Taylor handover took a nosedive last Wednesday when his indictment was suddenly announced by the Special Court, just as the peace negotiations in Accra were getting underway. The timing clearly angered and frustrated U.S. diplomats, who had thought they might achieve Taylor's departure by mid or late summer, knowledgeable sources said.
The indictment had actually been handed down by the Special Court three months earlier, on March 7, and sealed with the understanding that it would give the State Department time and leverage to facilitate what one official called a 'win-win' deal: Taylor's exit from office and a halt to bloody civil conflict. One focus of those efforts was getting Taylor to ask his supporters to voluntarily surrender their arms. When Crane served the arrest warrant last week, the U.S. government made no effort to pressure Ghana to arrest Taylor or prevent him from returning home, officials said.
Ghana's own dismay was reflected in an editorial in Friday's Ghanaian Chronicle calling the announcement of the indictment "unfair" and "embarrassing." The paper went on to say: "If the Ghana government had obliged and arrested Taylor, the country could have been 'blacklisted' by other leaders of warring factions in the sub-region. That would have been very unfortunate in view of the pioneering role Ghana, whose president currently chairs the Ecowas, has since independence been playing in the pursuit of African unity and peace."
However, the Special Court's chief prosecutor, David Crane, said the timing was deliberate and that Taylor should have no role in the talks. "It is imperative that the attendees know they are dealing with an indicted war criminal. These negotiations can still move forward, but they must do so without the involvement of this indictee."
Crane's attitude is more evidence that the Special Court "is more political than legal," said Kollie, Liberia's charge d'affaires. "If the prosecutor had any sense of judgment, why choose the time when Liberians are meeting to try and resolve their problems? He [Crane] should be arrested and put on trial."
Kollie said he has complained "at the highest level" to the U.S. government and has had a sympathetic reaction. "The United States does not want to see the precipitous departure of President Taylor from the negotiations," he said.
Washington has a pivotal role to play, Kollie said. "Britain took the lead in Sierra Leone, France in Ivory Coast." In Liberia, the United States is positioned to say 'the buck stops here.'
Few analysts expect the State Department to lead a charge to get Taylor back to the negotiating table. Nonetheless, the State Department does say that the administration remains committed to reconciliation and cease-fire talks. And there is enough room in their public remarks for Taylor to have a part in the process. "We call on all combatants to cease their campaigns of violence, to spare the lives and property of innocent civilians," State Department spokesman Reeker said.
The peace effort is continuing, Ghana Foreign Minister Nana Akufo-Addo said Monday, although resumption of negotiating sessions has been delayed until Wednesday. According to the West African mediator, former Nigerian head-of-state General Abdulsalami Abubakar, the first step will be getting a truce in place. "The question of a ceasefire must be addressed with an unselfish honesty so as to avoid turning Liberia into an endless killing field and a colony of miserable displaced persons in camps who live on handouts of charity like beggars," he said.
A team of Ghanaian mediators has reportedly left for Monrovia to try and work out a cease-fire directly between Taylor and rebel commanders