Liberian warlords turn to the ballot box

CHRIS McCALL

Agence France-Presse

Monrovia - Nearly six years after the start of Liberia's civil war, the country prepared yesterday to celebrate what it hopes is the end of one of the bloodiest conflicts in Africa and looked ahead to elections next August.

The man who set off the bloodbath in the West African state, Charles Taylor, arrived late on Thursday in the city he failed to conquer in assaults in 1990 and 1992. "This war was God's war and at his own appointed time he would make peace," said Mr Taylor, the National Patriotic Front (NPFL) leader.

En route from his headquarters at Gbarnga, 100 miles north-east of the Liberian capital, Mr Taylor passed through the former front lines where thousands were killed in his campaigns, many of them buried in rough graves. He estimated the crowd welcoming him at "half a million".

Excited villagers yelled "We want Taylor". Hundreds more joined the convoy once it entered the outskirts of Monrovia. They knocked over checkpoints while dozens of delirious Monrovians clung to the back of any vehicle they could find. Peace-keepers whipped hundreds of onlookers trying to get in to see him. "We believe that once Taylor is in Monrovia, the war will end," one Liberian said.

Yesterday was declared a public holiday and police were enforcing it strictly. Most shops were shut. A journalist saw officers stopping a Lebanese merchant from opening his store, saying he had "no right" to disobey the holiday directive.

Mr Taylor and other key warlords, Alhaji Kromah and George Boley, were sworn in as members of a new six-member transitional ruling council, chaired by Wilton Sankawulo, a lecturer, with Oscar Quiah, a politician, and Tamba Tailor, the elderly paramount chief of the Kissi ethnic group, representing civilian interests.

President Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, chairman of the Economic Community of West African States, took the place of honour among a high-powered group of foreign dignitaries who witnessed the ceremony. Mr Rawlings has been the driving force behind on-off peace talks over the past year, which led to an accord signed in Nigeria's federal capital, Abuja, on 19 August.

The United Nations special envoy, Anthony Nyaki, announced at yesterday's ceremony that elections would be held on 20 August 1996. Mr Taylor has pledged to run for president.

Under the Abuja accord all council of state members must live in Monrovia during the tenure of the transitional institutions, which is supposed to be a year and culminate in elections. Despite claims of ceasefire violations, independent observers say that a ceasefire which came into effect at midnight on 27 August has basically been holding.

Mr Taylor set off the bloodbath on 24 December, 1989, with a rebellion against the regime of President Samuel Doe, who was tortured to death by an NPFL splinter group nine months later in Monrovia.

The war has left more than 150,000 dead, according to official estimates. Warlords have signed and broken a dozen peace accords since the fighting started, while the number of militias has grown to seven.

t Geneva - More than 12,000 Liberian refugees have voluntarily returned home from Guinea, the UN refugee agency said yesterday, Reuter reports. A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said the agency expected more of the 800,000 Liberians in four neighbouring states to return under the UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme.

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