Appeal For Massive Liberia Force

The United Nations envoy for Liberia said Thursday he would ask the Security Council for 15,000 troops to secure the peace — what would be the U.N.'s largest deployment in the world.

Meanwhile, Liberia's rebels and government chose a gentle-mannered businessman to lead a transition administration that aims to guide the country out of 14 years of civil war. The announcement came at the close of 78 days of peace talks with international mediators.

In Ghana's capital, the chief mediator announced the selection of businessman Gyude Bryant to oversee the two-year power-sharing accord for Liberia, and sent warring parties home with a mandate to support it.

"The first step of unifying the people starts from today," retired Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar of Nigeria declared. "Do not let your people down."

Selection of the transitional government follows Monday's signing of a peace accord, made possible by warlord-president Charles Taylor's Aug. 11 resignation and flight into exile in Nigeria as rebels laid siege to the capital.

The interim government is to take power from Taylor's designated successor, former Vice President Moses Blah, on Oct. 14 and yield to an elected government in 2005.

As part of the peace accord, Liberia's rebels and government agreed not to vie for the interim government's top posts themselves. Instead, combatants picked the interim leaders from a list of nominees submitted by political parties and civic groups in deliberations that ended only before dawn Thursday.

Bryant, a 54-year-old heavy equipment dealer, was seen as the most neutral among the three candidates for the chairmanship.

"I have lived there throughout all these problems, and I see myself as a healer," Bryant, a large man noted for his gentle manner, told the AP early Thursday.

He pledged to work closely with the United Nations and other international agencies in the two-year transition government.

His priorities include demobilizing fighters, many of them boys or young men, who grew up with AK-47s.

"We have to disarm these young men, and let them know the war is over," he said.

Other priorities are restoring order and basic services such as electricity, which was knocked out by fighting in 1992 and never repaired.

Although not prominent, Bryant has been influential in Liberian politics. In 1997, he united six political parties in an unsuccessful bid to block Taylor from winning the presidency after a devastating 1989-96 civil war that Taylor had launched.

The combatants picked Wesley Johnson as vice chairman.

With Thursday's selections, Abubakar officially closed the talks, which were repeatedly sidelined by fighting in Liberia.

"Your job is not going to be an easy one," he said, and urged Liberia's people to support the effort.

"You have to play your part," he said. "Your country has bled for quite some time now. This is the time to heal the wound.

"Never again should such a carnage be visited to your country," the Nigerian said.

Abubakar, Blah, and other West African leaders now will go on a tour of Liberia's neighboring countries, including three — Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast — that themselves were embroiled in civil war or threatened with it because of Taylor. Guinea and Ivory Coast supported the rebels in Liberia's war.

Opened June 4 in Accra, Ghana, the talks brought warring sides together under pressure from West Africa countries, the United Nations, the United States and the European Union.

Opening ceremonies saw Taylor, his indictment by a U.N.-backed war-crimes court newly announced, go before fellow African leaders in attendance with a contrite pledge to step down.

He hedged on the promise within weeks.

Rebels opened their siege of Liberia's capital by June 6, ultimately helping leave Taylor little choice but to get out.

In Monrovia, U.N. envoy Jacques Klein told the AP he would ask the United Nations for 15,000 troops — the top end of the 12,000-15,000 figure already discussed.

The Security Council already has authorized a U.N. mission to take the place of a 2-week-old West African-led force, but left unstated how many troops it will send.

Klein said it was essential that the United States, which oversaw Liberia's 19th century founding by freed American slaves, stay on.

Fewer than 200 American troops are on the ground, in a rapid-reaction force on standby to aid the West African force as necessary, and as liaisons with the West African force.

President Bush already has said the Americans will be gone by Oct. 1.

"Some European countries have said they will only participate in the U.N. mission if there's a residual American presence — and that means anything at all. That's why we would like them to do the army part," Klein said.

He cited Liberia's past strategic value for the United States, including its rubber resources during World War II and its use as a key Cold War base, especially for operations against Moammar Gadhafi's Libya.

"You don't let countries down, when they've helped you in your national security," Klein said.

Currently, the biggest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world is the 12,000-man effort in Sierra Leone. Six thousands serve in the Democratic Republic of Congo, about 5,000 in Kosovo, roughly 4,000 on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea and just over 3,300 in East Timor.