Liberian leader agrees to go as fighting in city intensifies

Ending a bizarre game of hide-and-seek in war-torn Monrovia, Liberia's President Charles Taylor finally sat down yesterday with regional representatives demanding his resignation, and promised to step down next Monday.

"On Monday [11 August], I will step down and the new guy will have to be sworn in," Mr Taylor told journalists after the meeting in his mansion by the Atlantic. He refused to say when he would leave Liberia, as he has promised to do previously. His departure has been demanded by President George Bush as well as west African leaders.

"The most important thing is, everything that we have said about resigning and leaving will happen," Mr Taylor said.

On Friday he dodged the high-powered delegation from neighbouring west African countries. Military commanders said Mr Taylor had gone to the front-line 90 miles away in Buchanan, Liberia's second city, although according to some reports he had been in Monrovia all along. But instead of leaving, as Mr Taylor might have hoped, the envoys stayed the night in Monrovia, where heavy fighting again erupted.

As he received the delegation yesterday, the embattled President shook hands with Mohamed Ibn Chambas of the regional Ecowas bloc. Ecowas insisted that Mr Taylor should leave office after a 1,500-strong Nigerian-led peace-keeping mission starts deploying tomorrow, though he has obtained a week's grace. The unusually forceful message from his west African peers is the result of sustained Western pressure and a growing consensus that his departure is the key to stability in Liberia.

As the leaders met, fighting intensified on the streets. The government launched an all-out offensive on the key bridges that have been the focus of combat over the past two months.

According to reports, the attack could signal a government drive to retake the port area of the capital, which rebels have held for the past two weeks. Since the port is also Monrovia's main supply line, any force that holds it will have greater leverage with the arriving peace-keepers.

But there are also signs that what little discipline exists among Mr Taylor's unruly, drugged-up militia forces is starting to break down. On Friday a gunfight erupted near one of the bridges between Sierra Leonean fighters and their Liberian comrades, who said the clash was sparked by rising tensions between the two factions.

The Sierra Leoneans are among thousands of young gunmen who roam west Africa in search of war, the product of Mr Taylor's meddling in foreign conflicts. Some came to Liberia on the heels of Sam Bockarie, a Sierra Leonean war criminal known as "Mosquito", who died violently earlier this year.

Yesterday the "Death Row Crew", a teenage militia in trademark yellow T-shirts, carried the body of a fallen comrade to Monrovia's deserted cemetery.

At the cemetery, the fighters cowered by the roadside as gunfire crackled a few hundred yards up the street. Once it cleared, they hoisted the body into a hastily prepared grave. One fighter led a short prayer: "This is our brother lying here, and he is gone. We pray we will meet him in the Kingdom of Paradise. Dust to Dust. Amen."

Fears are growing about how Mr Taylor's fighters will react when he finally goes. The President has repeatedly warned that chaos and bloodshed will follow in his wake.

Under current plans, about 300 Nigerians will land in Monrovia tomorrow, followed by a much larger contingent, including troops from Ghana, Senegal and Mali.

The Africans will receive some support -- although it is unclear what kind -- from a force of 2,000 American troops sailing in west African waters. A fleet of three US warships was scheduled to anchor off Liberia yesterday. President Bush has said they will play a "support" role to the west African force.

The Liberia mission is hotly debated in Washington. Many Republicans feel the US is already thinly stretched in Afghanistan and Iraq, while black Americans are calling for a muscular intervention.

The juxtaposition of pictures of further civilian atrocities in Monrovia with images of immobile ships stationed offshore could have a powerful mobilising impact on US public opinion.

Sources say it is for this reason that the State Department, which favours intervention, and the Pentagon are debating about whether the ships should be anchored within sight of the coast.

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