Liberian President 'to quit' as part of ceasefire

Charles Taylor could step down as Liberian President under a truce paving the way for a transitional government and bringing peace to the West African country of which rebels control two-thirds.

The ceasefire was struck yesterday by Liberian government and rebel negotiators in neighbouring Ghana, which has been badly hit by the past three years of almost continuous fighting in Liberia. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the country.

The rebels - who have reached the gates of the capital Monrovia in recent days - had insisted that Mr Taylor, who has been indicted for war crimes by a UN court in Sierra Leone, leave office as part of the peace deal.

Mr Taylor, however, has been pushing for his indictment to be lifted, and had earlier agreed only to step down at the end of his term in January. It is now understood that he has agreed to go when the transitional government is formed within the next 30 days.

The accord states that the transitional government "will not include the current president". The interim government is to include representatives of the two groups of rebels and political parties.

As of last night, however, Mr Taylor's spokesman was insisting that the stipulation about his departure was still not set in stone. "We believe that all of those demands - like resignation, stepping aside, interim government and unity government - will have to be thrashed out," his spokesman told the Associated Press.

Mr Taylor's refusal to live up to an earlier promise of setting up a government of national unity led to the creation of the two rebel groups which launched their offensive on the capital from opposite ends of the country.

Daniel Chea, the Liberian Defence Minister, who signed on behalf of his government, said: "By this, we're letting the world know that the government of Liberia wishes in no way to be part of any further bloodshed." Mr Chea said Mr Taylor himself "fully supports this accord".

If all goes well, there will now be discussions on a full peace settlement that would involve the dispatch of West-African-led peacekeepers in a "stabilisation" force, possibly with some US assistance.News of the ceasefire had residents dancing in the streets of, Monrovia, the Associated Press said.

Last week, Mr Taylor declared Liberia would have no peace unless the war crimes indictment was dropped. But a spokesman for the UN Sierra Leone war crimes court said Mr Taylor would have to face justice.

Mr Taylor has been President since 1997 when he won elections after emerging as the strongest warlord after a seven-year civil war. But given the remaining uncertainties, and Liberia's past record in securing a lasting peace, it may be too soon to write him off.