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Businessman takes control as Liberia's peacetime leader

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Businessman Gyude Bryant took office as Liberia's interim leader Tuesday under red, white and blue bunting in the looted Capitol rotunda, inheriting a nation in ruins after years of civil war and rebellion.

Bryant, a low-key political reformer welcomed as a neutral figure in the country's power struggles, was sworn in two months after warlord Charles Taylor was ushered into exile under international pressure as rebels surrounded Monrovia.

"Never again will we Liberians use war as a way of addressing our concerns," said Bryant, 54, pledging to guide the devastated country out of its "state of despair."

West African leaders hugged Bryant before he took an oath as chairman, rather than president, of the two-year transition government, charged with guiding the country into 2005 elections.

A heavy equipment dealer and leader of a minor opposition party, Bryant led a 1997 effort to unite political chiefs behind a civilian candidate in Liberia's first elections after a devastating 1989-96 civil war, which Taylor had launched.

The six-party alliance's effort failed, and Taylor won the presidency. Within years, Taylor's many rivals and enemies took up arms to oust him, leading to a final rebel drive into Monrovia this June and July that killed more than 1,000 trapped refugees and residents.

Taylor resigned Aug. 11, forced out by the rebels and growing pressure from the United States, United Nations, Europe and by his fellow African leaders.

An Aug. 18 peace deal followed, setting up the power-sharing government in which both Liberia's rebels and Taylor's allies waived top positions. They will hold lower-ranking positions including Cabinet seats.

A U.N. military mission slated to grow to the world's largest -- 15,000 -- now secures peace in the capital, taking over from a Nigerian-led force whose August deployment helped still the mortar and AK-47 fire in Monrovia.

Cheering thousands

On Monday, Liberians lined the streets by the cheering thousands to greet Bryant, returning from the peace talks site in Accra, Ghana, for the first time since Taylor left.

Held back by cordons of white U.N. armored personnel carriers, women filled the streets outside the Capitol again Tuesday, waving signs whose slogans declared, "Peace is all we need."

"I feel very happy and I know Bryant is going to do something good for Liberia," said Alake Williams, 41, standing among traditional singers and drummers. "I know Bryant can restore peace. War is over."

Inside, U.N. peacekeepers stood guard with AK-47s and rocket-launchers, flanking rebel commanders and figures of Taylor's fallen government. Both sides have insisted they are ready to cooperate under Bryant.

"Though it's painful, we'll do it -- for peace's sake," said rebel official Sekou Fofana, dressed in suit and blue pith helmet for the occasion.

West African Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and John Kufuor of Ghana embraced Bryant, two months after Kufuor and other heads of state ushered Taylor into exile as rebels attacked the capital.

"Liberia needs to be pulled up by all of us," Obasanjo declared, adding, "If there's no peace in Liberia, there's no peace in West Africa."

Organizers draped the Capitol in bunting in the color of the Liberian flag -- modeled on that of the United States, the country that oversaw Liberia's freed 19th century founding as a haven for freed American slaves.

Signs of Liberia's struggles still were evident in the Capitol -- a window blown out, concrete stairs left only with shreds of red carpeting after looting of the building in Taylor's final days.

A former rebel, Taylor launched Liberia into 14 years of bloody power struggles as the head of a small insurgency in 1989. The conflicts killed at least 150,000 people, and made refugees out of virtually everyone in the country at one time or another, aid groups estimate.

From exile, Taylor issued a statement on the eve of the inauguration lauding Bryant -- and himself, for clearing the way for Bryant.

"My coming to Nigeria is an integral part of the peace process," Taylor said, in a statement read over the telephone by spokesman Vaani Passawe, with Taylor in seclusion in the jungles of southern Nigeria.

"I congratulate him," Taylor said of Bryant, "for I believe he is a good man who will work with all Liberians."


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