Liberia's Taylor: 'I Will Be Back'

President Charles Taylor waits for the arrival of President Thabo Mbeki from South Africa at the airport in Monrovia, Liberia, Monday, Aug. 11, 2003.
AP
President Charles Taylor, the former warlord blamed for 14 years of bloodshed in Liberia and indicted for war crimes in Sierra Leone, resigned Monday and surrendered power to his vice president.

"God willing, I will be back," Taylor said.

Within two hours, three U.S. warships appeared on the horizon off the coast. Liberians rushed to the beaches, hopeful that American peacekeepers were arriving to help end violence.

Pushed to resign by the United States and West African leaders, Taylor declared that history would judge him kindly, speaking at his long-promised resignation ceremony in Liberia's war-blasted capital.

African leaders said his departure marks the end of an era of bloodshed. Yet rebels besieging the capital threatened to resume fighting if Taylor did not leave for exile in Nigeria immediately.

Taylor, who has reneged on repeated promises to resign, began his farewell address by exhorting the international community to help Liberia. "We beg of you, we plead with you not to make this another press event."

"History will be kind to me. I have fulfilled my duties," he said, adding, "I have accepted this role as the sacrificial lamb…I am the whipping boy."

Taylor looked on as successor Moses Blah was sworn in. Placing his left hand on the Bible and raising his right, Blah pledged to "faithfully, conscientiously and impartially discharge the duties and functions of the Republic of Liberia."

He began his presidency with a moment of silence for all those who have died in Liberia's wars. "Let the nation begin to heal," Blah said. "Let all of us unite as one people and work to peace."

Rebels have rejected Taylor's choice of successor — a longtime ally and comrade in arms — and demanded that a neutral candidate be chosen to preside over a transition government until elections can be held. Blah has said he would hand power to a transitional government in October.

Pickup trucks full of armed rebels raced toward the front Monday as insurgents threatened to resume fighting if Taylor stays in the country, instead of going to Nigeria as promised.

"Unless Taylor leaves the country by one minute past 12 noon, I shall attack," rebel Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Abdulla Seyeah Sheriff said from Monrovia's rebel-held island port area. "If Taylor leaves the country, there'll be peace."

Taylor has accepted Nigeria's asylum offer but has also hedged on when he will go.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo did not attend Taylor's resignation, but sent his foreign minister. Obasanjo aides said Taylor was expected in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, on Monday.

Two months of intermittent rebel sieges have left over 1,000 civilians dead in Monrovia, as government and insurgent forces duel with the city of 1.3 million as their battlefield. The war has left Taylor controlling little but downtown, referred to derisively by rebels as Taylor's "Federal Republic of Central Monrovia."

Wearing a white safari suit and holding his trademark staff, Taylor had arrived hours late for his resignation ceremony at his Executive Mansion, heavily guarded by Nigerian and South African forces.

He and Blah stood to attention in front of gilded thrones for the national anthem, as, outside, Monrovia's beleaguered people cheered the Nigerian peacekeepers — part of a vanguard peace force meant to build to 3,250 West African soldiers.

The crowd was reserving celebrations over the former warlord's resignation until it was official.

"I can hardly believe it. He has brought too much suffering on the Liberian people," said Henry Philips, 38, a former security official. "His absence is better than his presence."

Inside a velvet-draped room in the Executive Mansion, Ghana's President John Kufuor addressed about 300 Liberian and other dignitaries.

"Today's ceremony marks the end of an era in Liberia," Kufuor said, speaking as head of a West African bloc that has sent peacekeepers to Liberia. "It is our expectation that today the war in Liberia has ended.

He also said South Africa would be contributing troops to the West African force, which started deploying last week.

Taylor had pledged to hand over power at one minute before noon (7:59 a.m. EDT) but was delayed at the airport where he welcomed Kufour, South African President Thabo Mbeki, Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano and Togolese Prime Minister Koffi Sama.

The president remained defiant to the end, on Sunday calling the rebel uprising an "American war" and suggesting it was motivated by U.S. eagerness for Liberia's gold, diamonds and other reserves.

Taylor compared his departure from the presidency to Jesus submitting himself to the Romans.

"They can call off their dogs now," Taylor said of the United States' alleged support of the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD. "We can have peace."

U.S. Ambassador John Blaney dismissed the charge as he waited for Taylor's resignation ceremony to begin.

Taylor launched Liberia's 14 years of near-constant conflict with a 1989-96 insurgency. International aid agencies estimate virtually all of Liberia's roughly 3 million people have been chased from their home by war, at one time or another.

Taylor was elected president in 1997 on threats of plunging the country into renewed bloodshed. Rebels — including some of Taylor's rivals from the previous war — took up arms against him two years later.

His ragtag forces, paid by looting, are accused by rights groups and Liberia's people of routine raping, robbing, torture, forced labor and summary killings. Rebels, to a lesser extent so far, likewise are accused of abuse.

The U.S. has sent seven Marines to assist the West African peacekeepers. Roughly 2,300 more are waiting off shore, but the Bush administration has said no larger commitment of U.S. troops would occur until Taylor war gone and a cease-fire was in place.

The president has been under pressure to assist Liberia, a country about the size of Tennessee which was founded by freed slaves in 1821 and has always had close ties to the United States.