Liberia's president invites rebels to capital

Monday, September 29, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Liberia's president Sunday invited rebel leaders to move to the capital ahead of the inauguration of a transitional government intended to end nearly 14 years of bloody strife in this war-battered West African country.

The invitation came the day after the first meeting between President Moses Blah's government and the leader of the main rebel group, Sekou Conneh. A government envoy traveled Saturday to the northwestern rebel stronghold of Tubmanburg for the encounter.

"Once they are all here, and we are talking to one another, the fear will go away," Blah said in a telephone interview Sunday with The Associated Press.

"We have to put the war behind us and move this country forward."

After Saturday's meeting, Conneh said he would travel to Monrovia on Wednesday for a preliminary meeting with Blah.

"We have to pull together to rebuild our country," he told AP in Tubmanburg.

Warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, who launched Liberia into conflict in 1989, resigned the presidency Aug. 11 under pressure from international leaders and from rebels laying siege to his capital. He turned over power to his vice president, Blah, before going into exile in Nigeria.

A new administration is scheduled to be installed Oct. 14, leading to democratic elections in 2005.

Government envoy Edwin Snowe, head of the state-run oil refinery and the popular president of the Liberian Football Association, was escorted Saturday by a rebel commander and two pickup-trucks full of West African peacekeepers for the 30-mile drive from Monrovia to Tubmanburg.

A giant billboard with Conneh's portrait greeted the convoy as they crossed over Po River, about 6 miles northwest of Monrovia, and into rebel territory. Under the picture was inscribed: "The liberator."

Conneh received Snowe at his residence, a simple, concrete building on top of a hill overlooking the bullet-scarred town.

Both men emerged from the closed-door meeting smiling.

Under a June 17 peace deal, rebels and government officials alike waived any claim on the top posts in the interim government -- yielding control to noncombatants for the first stretch of rebuilding.

Conneh brushed off questions about his future political aspirations.

"I don't want to be speaking about the future. I don't know what the future will bring," he said.

Fighting has subsided in and around Monrovia since a 3,250-strong West African force led by Nigeria took up peacekeeping duties. But in the countryside, sporadic clashes continue, making it difficult to deliver much-needed humanitarian aid in those areas.

The regional force will be re-hatted with blue helmets Wednesday when it becomes part of a U.N. peacekeeping mission of up to 15,000 soldiers. A battalion from Bangladesh is expected to join the African troops within two weeks, according to a U.N. statement issued Sunday in Monrovia.

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