Rebels, leaderfs sign peace accord in Liberian struggle

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia -- The Liberian government and rebels signed a peace accord Monday to end a bloody three-year insurgency that toppled warlord-president Charles Taylor as calm settled into the capital and shopkeepers opened for the first time in a month.

The accord, signed in Accra, Ghana, calls for a two-year power-sharing government, meant to lead Liberia into elections and out of 14 years of conflict brought on by Taylor.

The two rebel movements -- Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia -- signed, along with representatives of Liberia's post-Taylor government.

Under the deal, all three waive any claim on the top posts in the interim government -- yielding control to noncombatants.

"I want to believe that with the signing of this agreement today, Liberia will never be plunged into another spiral of violence in the quest for political power, or under the false pretense of liberating the people," said retired Nigerian Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, chief mediator for the talks.

"Liberians do not need liberators anymore. Liberians need developers and nation-builders," he said.

Ghana's President John Kufuor was on hand for the agreement, which saw representatives of the United Nations, European Union and African Union sign as witnesses.

The United States has had an influential delegation at the talks, and signed as witnesses to a June 17 cease-fire accord -- but it says West Africa must take the lead in Liberia.

An agreement that sticks

News came after dark in Monrovia, where hundreds of thousands still stay indoors for fear of gunmen, and few have batteries or electricity for radios after 10 weeks of rebel siege.

The deal comes a week after the resignation of Taylor, who flew into exile at the demand of rebels, West African leaders and the United States.

Taylor launched once-prosperous Liberia into conflict in 1989, leading a small insurgency. The seven-year civil war that followed killed at least 150,000 and ruined virtually every city and town in the country.

Taylor won the presidency in 1997, elected largely out of fear he would reignite fighting if he lost. The northern-based Liberians United group launched their insurgency in 1999, and were joined late last year by the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, based on the Ivory Coast border.

Liberia's combatants have broken all past peace accords, and returned to fighting.

Liberians and the international community have held out hope that Taylor's departure, and a promised U.N. peace force, will make a difference this time.

"Any agreement that sticks is to the benefit of the humanitarian situation, and the people of Liberia," Ross Mountain, the top U.N. humanitarian official in Liberia, said Monday.

"Today is better than yesterday, the gunmen are going away -- it's coming on, gradually," said Johnson Saryee, an unemployed truck driver among thousands gathering at Monrovia's port in hopes of finding work.

The last time Monrovia saw such calm was just before July 19, during a break in fighting between government forces and rebels who had besieged the capital since early June.

But relief supplies that have been trickling into the country suffered a blow. An aid ship carrying $86,000 worth of generators, fuel cans and other non-food supplies for Liberia sank in a storm off the coast of Sierra Leone. Nobody was injured.

The ship, the Madame Patricia, carried 19 people, all citizens of Sierra Leone, ship owner Abdul Labbie said in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown. World Vision spokesman Dan Kelly and others put the number aboard at 22.

"They had quite a swim. They were wearing their life preservers, and they swam ashore," Kelly said.

World Vision, based in Federal Way, Wash., is a Christian humanitarian group. The shipment was among the first for Liberia.

Rich Moseanko, field officer for World Vision, called the sinking a "momentary setback." The agency had warehouses in Italy and would airlift new supplies to Liberia in days, Moseanko said.

Food markets were open for the first time in a month Monday, but many of the crowds were out of money after selling all their belongings to buy food during the attacks. When the cash ran out, they and their families lived on bristly flower leaves and snails.

"I want to go and beg for food," said Ethel Weah, a gaunt 32-year-old trudging in from Monrovia's outskirts. "There's food in town, but I can't buy it -- no money."

More peace troops were expected to arrive. There will be 3,250 foreign troops when fully deployed.

In a week, "the situation is really stabilized here," said Staff Sgt. Jacob Reiff of Oshkosh, Wis., among about 200 Marines and other American troops sent onshore to back up the West African force.

The calm is far from secure, however.

Both sides have kept their AK-47s, grenades and rocket-launchers, although most of the armed insurgents have pulled out. One rebel, claiming to be 18 but looking far younger, walked Monrovia's streets Monday with only an AK-47 clip. His commander had taken his weapon away.

Residents said only the days were calm in Monrovia -- with fighters taking to the streets again when dark fell.

"During the day they put the guns away -- but at night, 'Bang, bang,"' said Louis Teah, a 26-year-old driver.

Associated Press writer Kwasi Kpodo in Accra, Ghana, contributed to this report.

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