'Neutral' businessman to be Liberia leader

Liberia's warring factions chose a Monrovia businessman yesterday to lead the crippled country's post-war transitional government.

The selection of Gyude Bryant, a 54-year-old dealer in heavy equipment, follows the signing of a peace accord on Monday made possible by the resignation and flight into exile of the former warlord-president, Charles Taylor, on 11 August.

In Monrovia the UN envoy for Liberia, Jacques Klein, said yesterday he would ask the Security Council for 15,000 troops to secure the peace. If granted, the deployment would be the UN's largest.

Mr Klein also said he had asked that American forces stay on to train a new Liberian army. "We are hoping the US will take it on," he said.

"The first step of unifying the people starts from today," said General Abdulsalami Abubakar, the former Nigerian leader who has been mediating. "Do not let your people down."

Under the terms of the agreement, Taylor's designated successor, the former vice-president Moses Blah, is to hand over power to the interim government in October.

Liberia's combatants chose the interim leaders from a list of nominees submitted by political parties and civic groups. Mr Bryant, whose nomination was announced just before dawn yesterday, was seen as the strongest consensus-builder among the candidates for the chairmanship.

"Liberians need a neutralist and I believe I am a neutralist. I have lived there throughout all these problems, and I see myself as a healer," Mr Bryant said, pledging to work closely with the UN and other international agencies in the two-year transitional government, whose aim is to lead Liberia out of 14 years of bloodshed and into free elections.

His priorities include demobilising fighters, many of them boys who grew up with AK-47s. "We have to disarm these young men, and let them know the war is over," he said. Other priorities are restoring order and basic services such as electricity, which was destroyed by fighting in 1992.

Although not prominent, Mr Bryant has been influential in Liberian politics at times. In 1997, he united six political parties in an unsuccessful bid to block Taylor from winning the presidency after the devastating 1989-96 civil war launched by the warlord.

The transitional government itself is to yield to an elected government in 2005.

The talks, which opened in Accra on 4 June, brought warring sides together as a result of pressure from West African countries, the UN, the United States and European Union.

The opening ceremonies saw Taylor, his indictment by a UN-backed war-crimes court newly announced, go before fellow African leaders with a contrite pledge to step down. He hedged on the promise within weeks. Rebels opened their siege of Liberia's capital on 6 June, leaving Taylor little choice but to get out. (AP)

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