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Liberian leader attempts to defuse unrest at home and criticism from abroad

Liberian President Samuel Doe's decision last Friday to free all remaining prisoners held in connection with last November's attempted coup should help to defuse the tense political situation in Liberia and focus more attention on solving the country's financial crisis, according to analysts. The political and social unrest in Liberia stem from the country's deteriorating economy and growing opposition to Mr. Doe's brand of ``democracy.''

Unemployment hovers around an unprecedented high of 50 percent, the public-sector wage bill is bloated, civil servants are not receiving paychecks, and Liberia has an estimated $1.4 billion of foreign debt.

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In addition, Doe's regime is continually being questioned on its human rights record. Reports of abuse include: detention and beatings of political opponents, as well as coups staged by Doe in order to discredit and, in at least one instance, justify arrest and execution of opponents.

Last October's elections, the first one-man, one-vote ever held in Liberia, were rigged, according to foreign reporters and Doe's political opponents.

Among those freed ``unconditionally'' last week were a number of political prisoners -- some held without charge -- who had heavily criticized the Doe regime for election fraud and human rights abuses. Many were allegedly involved in last fall's attempted coup. Of these, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and 20 others had been charged with treason.

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist and former Citibank representative in Nairobi, was a Liberian finance minister in the ousted regime of President William Tolbert. She is also a leading member of the opposition Liberia Action Party.

Her arrest and trial have caused an international outcry, especially in the United States, where officials saw her as being made a political scapegoat.

Doe said in an unscheduled radio broadcast that the release of the prisoners had been made in the interest of ``national reconciliation'' and to promote ``peace and stability'' in the country.

Observers point out that the decision should help defuse a call in the US Congress that aid to Liberia be cut because of reported human rights abuses, and thus guarantee the continuation of aid from the United States. Since the US gives more aid per capita -- $40 a person -- to Liberia than to any other country, good relations with the US are crucial to its economic survival.

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The proposed 1986 aid to Liberia from the US is $93 million. And many US officials considered the outcome of the treason trials a testing ground for Doe's human rights policies.

It remains to be seen whether opposition leaders will cooperate with the Doe regime and take up their seats in parliament. So far, there is no sign that they intend to abandon their opposition struggle.

According to observers, Doe, distracted by political problems, is trying to give greater public attention to Liberia's financial crisis, which is seen as the root of much of this political and social unrest. The recent appointment of Robert Tubman, former head of the West African Economic Community's development fund in Rome, as finance minister is seen as a move to soothe Liberia's foreign creditors.

The government's most daunting economic task is clearing its foreign debt, of which $60 million alone is owed to the International Monetary Fund. Until it is clear with the IMF, Liberia will be unable to reschedule its $1.4 billion external debt or draw new aid. And, with little improvement forecast for earnings on the country's main export commodities -- iron ore, rubber, and timber -- it cannot rely on its own resources, say economists.

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