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Large Weapons Stockpiles Could Prolong Liberia War

Impact of UN embargo is offset by rebels' sales of natural resources. CONFLICT IN LIBERIA

A UNITED Nations embargo slapped on Liberia last month is unlikely to end the civil war here anytime soon, but it could help preserve the natural resources that rebel leader Charles Taylor has not yet plundered and sold to fuel his war machine.

Mr. Taylor controls most of the countryside - so-called Greater Liberia - and has sold much of its gold, timber, diamonds, and rubber to Americans, Europeans, and Lebanese during the past two years to build up a substantial arsenal, diplomats and military sources say.

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Diplomats and relief workers say Taylor has already felt the pinch of the UN embargo and is suffering a fuel shortage. But they agree the rebel leader has substantial arms and ammunition stockpiles and his guerrilla forces have hunkered down in swamps near the capital, apparently prepared for a long fight.

"Charles Taylor is not a man who is going to respect any resolution unless he feels he cannot fulfill his ambitions," says Maj. Gen. Adetunji Olurin, field commander for the seven-nation West African force known as ECOMOG.

"We know he has a lot [of arms] but we don't know exactly what he has because we never tried to find out. We came here as peacemakers," says another West African officer. Countering the attack

Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) launched a new attack on Monrovia Oct. 15 to finish the rebel leader's quest for the executive mansion that ECOMOG cut short two years ago. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in six weeks of fighting with West African forces.

The UN imposed a total embargo against Liberia Nov. 19, aimed mainly at Taylor, and called for a cease-fire to avoid a repeat of the 1990 war that claimed about 60,000 lives. The sanctions were approved under the same UN provisions used to punish Iraq and Yugoslavia.

The embargo will prevent Taylor from receiving anything across Liberia's borders with Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast, and through his ports and airports. The clampdown will stem his exports of timber and other resources (thus slowing mining and logging) and cut revenue for his arms purchases.

Some of Taylor's best business associates are Americans who have ignored regulations set by Liberia's interim government to protect the country's forests, streams, and grasslands, and instead have dealt directly with Taylor, according to diplomats and government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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Taylor extracts "taxes" of up to $100,000 per quarter from the miners and loggers, and buys guns for his rebels, they say. It is unclear how much of a percentage he receives from sales.

"Everybody who operates in Greater Liberia has to pay compensation to Taylor," says one official. "The war is not only killing our youth, wiping out three or four generations, it is also destroying our environment."

Officials say loggers have been felling timber in Liberia's Sapo National Park, a rain forest and game reserve that is a rich stand of old-growth forest and home to elephants, pygmy hippos, leopards, and other animals. Forest depletion

More than 40 percent of Liberia's forests had been depleted before the war began in December 1989, when Taylor invaded Liberia from Ivory Coast. But at that time, reforestation projects started in 1971 were helping to compensate for the loss.

Legal exports of forest products declined in the early 1980s due to the exhaustion of accessible timber. It is impossible to survey the damage to forests and streams because Taylor has threatened to down any planes flying over Greater Liberia.

The rebel leader has denied that he has allowed anyone to fell trees in the area and has claimed that ECOMOG cluster bombs are destroying Liberia's resources. A regional conflict

West African leaders requested the UN embargo, impatient over Taylor's intransigence to disarm. One critical component of the embargo's success is the cooperation of Ivory Coast's President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who had maintained close ties with Taylor. He now has closed the border with Liberia, another sign that the region is relying on itself to stop the war instead of waiting for the West.

Liberia was founded by freed American slaves in 1842. As a pseudo-colony of the United States, African countries colonized by Europeans long considered Liberia an outsider.

Ironically, Liberia's war is bringing the country back into the fold of West Africa due to the involvement of about 12,000 regional troops protecting the capital and an interim government chosen by the 16-nation Economic Community of West African States.

Regional leaders sent troops to Monrovia in August 1990 to stop a civil war between the NPFL, a rival guerrilla faction, and Liberia's Armed Forces. West African officials imposed a cease-fire in November of that year and a shaky peace held until another rebel group, the United Liberation Movement of Democracy, attacked Taylor in August.

Taylor commended the UN for the arms embargo, calling it "a major victory for the forces of democracy in Liberia."

The rebel leader ignored, however, the fact that the UN mandate was aimed at him. In a statement, he called on regional leaders to heed the UN's call.

"Instead of supplying other armed groups in Liberia we call upon [regional leaders] to divert these resources from military hardware to economic aid to all parts of Liberia," he said.

ECOMOG Commander Olurin says he will employ "an offensive-defensive" to protect Monrovia against rebel invasion while he waits for the arms embargo to squeeze Taylor into complacency.

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