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Liberians hope for peace with new government: Aid shipments begin under UN accord that should bring democratic elections next year

THE NAMING of a new transitional government recognised by all, and the start of international aid shipments to destitute civilians caught behind rebel lines are the surest signs yet that Liberia's civil war is over, at least temporarily, writes Karl Maier.

The make-up of the five-member transitional State Council was announced yesterday in Cotonou, capital of the Benin Republic, after meetings of the three main Liberian factions: the former interim government of Amos Sawyer, Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), and the United Liberation Movement (Ulimo). The council comprises one member from each group and two other well-known Liberians, including David Kpomakpor, a former supreme court justice, who were chosen from a list of nine people nominated by the factions.

The council and a still unnamed 35-member transitional legislature, to consist of 13 members each from the NPFL and the interim government, and nine from Ulimo, are key elements of a UN-sponsored peace accord signed on 25 July and designed to end the 44-month war, leading Liberia to democratic elections next February. The ceasefire, to be monitored by UN observers, representatives of the three factions, and soldiers of the Nigerian-led West African intervention force, known as Ecomog, has held since taking effect on 1 August.

The first aid shipments to an estimated 200,000 civilians trapped behind rebel lines since last October began on 13 August. The UN and the medical charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which sponsored the first convoy, are preparing to send a second one today. MSF officials said they hoped to dispatch 500 tonnes of food by rail from the port of Buchanan to the north later this week.

Talks have also begun in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, between the factions on the most difficult aspect of the peace plan, the disarmament programme to be carried out by an expanded Ecomog force that would include UN monitors and troops from other African countries.

The UN has estimated that the civil war, sparked by Mr Taylor's insurrection in 1989 against the dictatorship of Samuel Doe, claimed the lives of 150,000 people, displaced half of Liberia's 2.6 million people, and forced 750,000 people to flee Liberia and take refuge in other countries.

Previous peace accords have failed, most recently last October, when an attempt by NPFL troops to capture Monrovia reignited the war. Mr Taylor, whose forces control two-thirds of the country, has justified the assault by charging Ecomog with giving covert support to his bitter rivals in Ulimo.