Calls For U.S. Help In Liberia

Government troops on a vehicle wait to move off from the port area of Monrovia, Liberia, to advance to the frontline outside the city on Saturday June 28, 2003. The capital of this west African nation is devastated by war, though the government troops have chased rebel forces from the capital, and the city is now calm again. (AP Photo/Pewee Flomoku)
With fighting receded for now in Liberia's devastated capital, President Charles Taylor joined his desperate people and called for American help to end the war in his bloodied West African nation.

But Taylor, making a victory tour of Monrovia after chasing rebels out this latest time, gave no sign he would heed President Bush's call that he step down.

"We ask the international community, most specifically the United States, to do everything within its power to help Liberia and Liberians out of this mess," Taylor said in a radio address Friday, hours after fighting stilled.

Taylor, an indicted U.N. war crimes suspect, spoke after rebels pulled back from the western edge of the capital. The move ended a four-day siege that killed an estimated 500 civilians.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan says he's "deeply concerned" by what he calls "flagrant violations of the cease-fire" in the African nation, and says a multinational force is needed to prevent "a major humanitarian tragedy."

Liberia's main port, on the west side of this city of 1 million people, has repeatedly proved the stopping point for rebels in their three-year war to topple Taylor.

During his radio address, thousands of Liberians rallied outside the U.S. Embassy, pleading for help.

"George Bush we are dying," one sign said. The crowd earlier had laid out the bodies of children killed in the bombardment of the capital before the embassy.

"We need you now, America," another sign said.

Mortuaries filled as Monrovia's death toll climbed, leaving civilians to hastily bury the dead — family members, and strangers found on the streets — on the city's Atlantic Ocean beaches during the fight, at times with rockets slamming into the sand around them.

Health workers tried to deal with growing hunger and disease in the wake of the fighting. With the city's food stocks tied up in the embattled port, rice, flour and other staples had tripled in price, if they could be found at all.

Fighting surged last week after Taylor announced he would stay in power at least through the end of his term in January. His announcement was seen as reneging on pledges made during the peace talks to cede power in the interest of peace.

West African mediators suspended Liberia's month-old peace talks for a week, saying conditions on the ground had made them impossible.

A U.N.-backed indictment disclosed June 4 accused Taylor of crimes against humanity in his backing of rebels in Sierra Leone, who killed tens of thousands and maimed thousands more with machetes in a 10-year campaign to win that country's diamond fields.

Taylor, in his address, again raised the possibility that he might yield power, meeting the key demand of rebels and fulfilling a pledge he made earlier this month to step aside in the interest of peace.

But he barely mentioned leaving.

"The peace that I seek should be a soft landing, where there will be a cease-fire that will be monitored," Taylor said.

"I will make absolutely sure that this kind of murder and mayhem…will not come upon you if and when I am not on the scene," Taylor said.

West African leaders promised at least a 5,000-member peace force for warring Liberia after a cease-fire has been reached, and said France had offered troops and logistical support.

Ghana President John Kufuor announced the peace force late Friday, after the arrival of French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin on a two-day visit to the West African nation.

"Any sacrifice would be made to restore peace to Liberia," said Kufuor, current head of West Africa's regional leaders bloc.

De Villepin, without confirming any French military contribution, made clear France was open to the possibility of helping. He cited French troops already in Congo and the former French colony of Ivory Coast, trying to enforce cease-fires there.

"It will not be difficult for us to do the same…in Liberia," the French foreign minister said. "But the first thing that must be done is the cease-fire."

The French diplomat also indirectly rebuked Mr. Bush, who on Thursday called on Taylor to cede power in the interest of peace.

"In such conflict resolution, outside dictatorship does not help anybody," de Villepin said. "Rather, neighboring countries should be encouraged to take charge while we lend our support, and not the other way around."

Liberia is Africa's oldest free republic, founded by former American slaves. Given the U.S. connection, there are some calls for American intervention, similar to moves by the British to quell the fighting in Sierra Leone and the French to respond to Ivory Cost's recent unrest.

In a Thursday briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said "all options are under consideration."

"We have been willing to participate with a joint verification team if the parties start to abide by the ceasefire and we're able to verify that they are meeting their commitments," he said.