Freedom for the tortured as Taylor's days run out

Charles Taylor's grip on power as President of Liberia appears to be slipping rapidly as his government crumbles and rebels threaten a fresh offensive if the United States fails to send peace-keepers.

In the past week prisoners have walked free, government ministries have ground to a halt and top-ranking officials have apparently prepared to flee the country.

"His time is finishing, I am sure of it," said Varsay Kamara yesterday. He was one of 51 prisoners inexplicably released from detention on Friday.

Mr Kamara's feet rotted during his one-year detention after being held in knee-deep water for 16 days. He believes Mr Taylor's feared secret service arrested him for belonging to the Mandingo, an ethnic group associated with the main rebel movement.

Work at most government ministries has ground to a halt. In some cases employees are staying at home; in others displaced townspeople have occupied buildings. More than 1,500 people have been sleeping in the corridors of the Ministry of Interior Affairs after fleeing two waves of fighting last month.

Revenues have collapsed at the Ministry of Finance since the controversial timber business ­ one of Mr Taylor's few remaining sources of income ­ ground to a halt last month. Aid workers say that even simple tasks such as vehicle registration are impossible. "The entire system is down. We are just waiting for the international community to arrive," said a senior ministry official yesterday as he returned to collect some papers at his office.

Other ministries appear to have been looted by their own staff. One Western observer recently visited the national security agency building: "All the furniture was gone," he said.

A number of senior officials have sent their families into exile in nearby Gambia and Ghana, either by road or air. "It's a big boat sinking fast and people are trying to save their lives," the observer said.

Others have left by less conventional means. A human rights activist who had been detained for eight months escaped from Central Prison in June after guards deserted during a rebel offensive.

The man, who asked not to be named to protect his family, fled into the night and slipped out of the seaport city of Monrovia by fishing canoe. After a week-long journey he found refuge in Ghana. "I would like to say Liberians are coming to the end of the nightmare," he said by phone from Accra. "But what is happening is too hard to predict."

A delegation of Taylor officials is holding talks with the rebels in Accra but hopes of a peace deal are low and there is scepticism about whether all of the officials will return to Liberia, particularly if Mr Taylor leaves.

Much rests on whether President George Bush will succumb to concerted international pressure to send up to 2,000 US peace-keepers. The President met the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, in Washington to discuss Liberia yesterday, and stressed: "Any commitment we have would be limited in size and limited in tenure."

America has already deployed a 32-person military assessment team to Liberia to determine the conditions of any possible deployment. A further 100 troops arrived in neighbouring countries over the weekend to provide backup support.

Even Liberian gunmen are pinning hope for peace on the US. "I'm depending on George Bush," said a militia fighter, Joshua Tamba, 27, at a checkpoint north of Monrovia. "I won't be sorry to see [Taylor] go." Some of Mr Taylor's troops are angry at not being paid, and have threatened a looting spree known as "Operation Pay Yourself" if he leaves before they receive severance pay.

Although President Bush has just returned from a five-day tour of Africa, his advisers are divided over whether troops should be sent to Liberia, founded by freed US slaves over 150 years ago.

One suggestion is that instead of sending a large force of troops, President Bush will send money and logistical back-up to reinforce a contingent of West African peacekeepers. But many Liberians are sceptical that that compromise would work. "They were part of the problem before ­ they armed different factions and got involved in the looting," said Oscar Bloh of the peace organisation Search for Common Ground.

Stopping the shooting should be the priority for America, even above aid delivery, said Jordi Raich of the International Red Cross. "If they come here to protect sacks of rice it's useless. They have to provide security," he said.