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Liberian Government, Rebels Locked in Stalemate

The West African nation once established as a haven for freed Americans slaves remains divided and damaged long after a rierce civil war. Despite agreements reached among rival leaders, nationwide presidential elections remain elusive.

NEARLY 16 months after a cease-fire in Liberia's civil war, this Louisiana-sized nation is torn between five armies and two men claiming to be president.

Rebels control the entire country except Monrovia, the seaside capital, where a civilian interim government operates under the protection of a West African peacekeeping force. The economy is stalled. Road blocks continue to hamper deliveries of relief materials and development efforts, according to relief officials. Human rights groups cite violations by all factions.

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Returning Liberia to some degree of normalcy will require the cooperation of rebel leader Charles Taylor, interim government President Amos Sawyer, and international aid and relief support.

There is a "good possibility" of elections this year, says United States Ambassador to Liberia Peter Jon de Vos. But "until there's a final settlement, all can go wrong," he says.

Mr. Taylor launched the rebellion in December 1989 against President Samuel Doe. At the height of the conflict, in August 1990, five West African nations - Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Gambia, and Sierra Leone - sent troops to Monrovia and pushed Taylor's rebels out of the capital. Three weeks later, Doe was slain by a small rebel band under Prince Yormic Johnson, who had broken away from Taylor. Relief officials estimate that more than 20,000 persons died during the war.

Mali and Senegal have since joined the peacekeeping force. Under the banner of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the West Africans brokered a cease-fire and backed the interim government in November 1990.

The peacekeeping forces intend to stay until Liberia holds "free and fair elections" for a president and a parliament, says Nigerian Maj. Gen. Ishaya Bakut, commander of the peacekeeping forces.

At an ECOWAS-sponsored summit in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, in October 1991, interim President Sawyer and Taylor, head of the National Patriotic Forces of Liberia, agreed to disarm troops by Jan. 15 and hold elections in April. However, little progress has been made in satisfying pre-election conditions, including the disarming of rebel forces and the opening of roads into the interior.

Today, three armies reside in Monrovia - the 7,000-strong West African force, Prince Johnson's splinter group, and remnants of Doe's Army. Taylor's rebels control the rest of the country, and a small ethnic band continues to oppose Taylor in the north.

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Both sides accuse the other of deliberately delaying the peace process.

Sitting behind double doors in the executive mansion here, Sawyer, a former political science professor, told the Monitor: "The state of 'no war, no peace' has been very profitable for Mr. Taylor. He has had exclusive use of the timber resources of our country. He has signed all sorts of agreements with French concessionaires.... He is buying produce from the farmers at very low prices and selling them abroad. He has control of the diamond industry in the country."

Sawyer, who cannot run in the election under the terms of the interim government, says that Taylor is undermining negotiations toward a settlement by balking over disarming his rebels.

The interim president also points a critical finger at the US, which has had a special relationship with Liberia since it was established as a haven for freed American slaves in 1816. He says the presence of US ships offshore at the height of the war - ships used to evacuate Americans and others from Monrovia - sent a "false signal" of hope.

"Liberians were convinced Americans were here to the rescue. Many people stayed behind: They could have left earlier," he says.

Sawyer says the West should now send economic aid to the ECOWAS operation.

But in Gbarnga, about 120 miles north of Monrovia, the main rebel leader disagrees. Taylor claims to be the true president of Liberia and challenges the way Sawyer was named interim president.

He says he resents the US for "permitting Nigeria and Ghana and other countries to send in armed people here to kill people of this country."

"The people of this country never brought Amos Sawyer here. And if we were to have elections ... I'd win through a landslide."

Sawyer was named President of Liberia at a meeting in August 1990 in Banjul, Gambia, attended by Liberian political activists and exiles. He was reappointed president by a similar conference in Monrovia in March 1991. Taylor maintains his representatives were not able to reach the conference.

A major obstacle to elections is whether Taylor can get his forces to encamp and disarm. Taylor insists that he controls his forces: "They love me. They respect me. They look at me as a role model. They look at me as a hero. And they will do what I tell them to do."

Taylor's defense minister, Juconte Thomas Woewiyu, also says disarmament is possible: "The truth is, not everybody in this country has a gun. We never had that kind of money for everybody to be armed. At this particular moment, when you see guns around the country, those are guns we have allowed to stay out there for the security of the nation or ourselves."

Another obstacle to elections is the continuing clashes between Taylor's forces and the Sierra Leone-based United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), an antagonistic ethnic group which includes some of Doe's former soldiers.

When it gains access to Taylor's territory, the peacekeeping force will deploy itself along the Sierra Leone border as a "buffer" between Taylor and the ULIMO rebels, West African officials say.

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