Taylor says he'll go, but will he?
As peacekeepers arrive, stability in the region may hinge on the Liberian president's departure.
Several burly men brandish weapons, scowling as they position themselves in front of Liberia's decrepit Executive Mansion.
A few minutes later, President Charles Taylor himself emerges, smiling, his T-shirted bodyguards forming a phalanx around him. With a wave of his hand, he motions for his men to fall back.
"Everything we've said about resigning and leaving will happen," says Mr. Taylor.
This is not the first promise Taylor has made to leave power, although it is the most explicit: He'll go at 11:59 a.m.Monday, Aug. 11.
But as the first Nigerian peacekeepers arrived here Monday to cheering Liberians, Taylor's true intentions remained a question mark. Liberia's president faces an international warcrimes charge. If he steps down, but stays in the country to avoid the indictment, the prospects for peace here will dim.
Liberia's two rebel groups, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) have made Taylor's resignation and departure a condition for peace.
And they want assurances that Taylor will stay permanently out of the picture. If he resigns but remains in the country, they warn, the war will continue.
"We call him a common criminal," says a LURD leader who identifies himself as "K1," by telephone from Monrovia's rebel-held port. "When Charles Taylor leaves power, we believe that will be the end of the suffering of the Liberian people."
The first wave of West African peacekeepers swooped into Liberia by helicopter Monday.
In the ruined streets of Monrovia, the battered capital, their arrival was marked by cheers. Some Liberians wore T-Shirts decorated with the image of their flag sandwiched between the slogan "Thank God for ECOMIL" - the peacekeeping force. The back read "Peace at last." Others danced in the driving rain. Rebel forces set off flares over the city in celebration.
The second batch of Nigerian soldiers is expected Wednesday, with the remainder of the 1,500-strong force to follow soon.
Liberia now finds itself in a unique position, where the international community supports armed groups who have called for the country's elected president to step down. The reason is not that Taylor's claim to the presidency is in dispute; Taylor's election in 1997 was considered largely free and fair by observers.
Rather, it is Taylor's destabilizing influence on the region that has led to calls for his departure in the name of peace. Taylor is accused of fueling civil wars in neighboring countries, including the recent civil war in Ivory Coast.
As a result, Liberia has been the target of UN sanctions, and Taylor himself has been subject to travel bans. Taylor is also under indictment for war crimes by an international court for his role in Sierra Leone.
"Charles Taylor was directly involved in the planning of military operations of the RUF [Revolutionary United Front], which were designed to target civilian populations and to commit war crimes," says Niccolo Figa-Talamanca, program director of No Peace Without Justice in Sierra Leone, which is monitoring the progress of the Special Court.
"The question is not simply one of assisting the RUF from a military point of view, but being involved in the planning and design of operations that were themselves violations of the laws of war."
That indictment, which accuses Taylor of helping orchestrate some of the war's most brutal elements, including recruiting child soldiers, is now a major barrier to Taylor's departure. Presidential aides have indicated he will not leave the country until the charges are dropped.
Taylor is the son of a wealthy Americo-Liberian father and native Liberian mother. Like many of Liberia's elite, he was educated in the United States and took a civil service position in Liberia when Samuel Doe took power.
But Mr. Doe later accused him of embezzling state funds and Taylor fled to the US. He returned to Liberia in 1989 to head the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), reputedly with support from Libya and Burkina Faso.
Called "Pappy" by his long-time soldiers, many of whom still fight for him today as part of the national army or one of many armed militia groups, Taylor broke numerous ceasefires and peace deals before finally agreeing to an election in 1997.
His soldiers say they will honor a transfer of power, but many have a strong personal loyalty to the president. Observers fear that unless he leaves the country, these armed groups will hamper the peace process.
"He's our father," said Prince Daxo, a government militia fighter manning a roadblock. He is an orphan who has been fighting for Taylor since 1991. "I've got much respect for him wherever he goes."
When he ran for president in '97, Taylor received more than 70 percent of the vote. His nearest rival, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, was supported by only 10 percent of Liberians - and is now considered a possibility for president. But Taylor's apparent popularity is misleading.
Varney Quaye, a displaced social worker who, like hundreds of thousands of Monrovians, has taken refuge in the city's abandoned buildings, says many Liberians voted for Taylor because they thought electing him to power would end the civil war. Equally pragmatically, he says Liberians now hope Taylor's departure will bring peace.
"People thought that if he did not win, the war would begin again," says Mr. Quaye. "But everybody has tasted the cake," he continues, referring to Taylor's rule. "They thought it was sweet, but he was harsh."
If Taylor does leave Liberia, a prospect that was cast in doubt this weekend, he is expected to go into exile in Nigeria.
But there is increasing domestic and international pressure on Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to withdraw his offer, or ensure Taylor faces the UN court.
"Until Charles Taylor leaves the country, really until he is in the custody of the Special Court, there is very little hope for peace in Liberia or in neighboring Ivory Coast," says Mr. Figa-Talamanca.
• Materials from the wires were used in this report.