Liberia rebel's peace formula: A defiant Charles Taylor calls for a UN force and an election

CHARLES TAYLOR sees himself as a Liberian George Washington who has had a bad press. 'I guess I just lost out in the propaganda war,' he says.

He believes he has not received the credit he deserves for leading an insurrection that toppled the dictatorship of Master Sergeant Samuel Doe in 1990. Of the administration of interim President Amos Sawyer, installed in Monrovia, the capital, he says: 'I am why they even got the chance to come back to Liberia'.

In an interview at his house in Gbarnga, capital of 'Greater Liberia', the 60 per cent of the country controlled by his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), he said that if Mr Sawyer and his supporters 'had any decency', like Thomas Jefferson and the original American patriots, they would choose him as president.

Mr Taylor is a plain-speaking 45- year-old former civil servant turned rebel leader who was once a fugitive in the United States. He had broken out of jail with a hacksaw and bedsheets to escape extradition to Liberia, where he was wanted for allegedly embezzling dollars 900,000 ( pounds 625,000). After military training in Libya, he led a rebel army across the border with Ivory Coast, gained control of 80 per cent of Liberia, and reached the outskirts of Monrovia before the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Herman Cohen, persuaded him to respect a ceasefire. Since then his fortunes have declined. Western countries, except for France, oppose the NPFL. Two of Liberia's three neighbours, Sierra Leone and Guinea, support the Nigerian-led West African intervention force, Ecomog.

The ceasefire broke down last October after Mr Taylor ordered his troops to attack Monrovia - a response, he said, to raids by Liberian factions allied to Ecomog. His young army is accused of murdering five American nuns, and the 15,000-strong Ecomog, using aerial bombings, gunboat shellings, and local militias, is attempting to hunt him down. A United Nations- backed economic embargo has shut down the economy in areas he controls. Fuel and food are scarce.

'The whole concept down there is to destroy the economy here and weaken us as a people, achieve certain military advances, and then turn those advances into political advances at the ballot box,' he said in his broad American accent. 'Then it is all over. That is not going to work.'

Through it all, Mr Taylor remains as defiant as ever, confident that if need be his army can return to guerrilla warfare and outlast the Nigerian military campaign. 'Even if Nigeria would succeed in breaking through the main roads here, we'll go into the forest, and we will fight them for years,' he said. The only way out of the crisis, he argued, was to negotiate a ceasefire, replace Ecomog with about 3,000 UN peace-keeping troops, and hold general elections. That would have his full support: 'Maybe because I am just so pig-headed in believing that on a fair scale I will win an election and beat all them out.'

Co-operation with Ecomog was out of the question: 'It is not possible for anybody to expect us to disarm to anyone who is presently shooting at us. We will never do it. We will be involved in this war until probably we all die, but I will never order my troops to disarm to the present configuration of Ecomog, I don't care who says.'

The 'present configuration of Ecomog' means the predominance of Nigeria, which has provided the bulk of the troops, warplanes and gunboats used to batter NPFL territory. When Mr Taylor speaks of Nigerian President Ibrahim Babangida he spits venom, as if the war had become personal test of wills.

'The problem in Nigeria right now is that in order for Babangida to get off the hook after the massive theft of public resources in Nigeria, the corruption, everything else, in order to get off clean all that accounting will end up on the Liberian war,' he says. 'If we have to kill one Babangida soldier a day here, if we have to bring whatever little pain we can put on them as long as they destroy our people, we will never, ever surrender to Babangida.'

(Photograph omitted)

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