Originally created 08/08/03

Peacekeepers enter Liberia's capital as Taylor submits resignation, designates successor



MONROVIA, Liberia -- President Charles Taylor submitted his resignation and named his vice president to take over the reins of the embattled government Thursday as throngs cheered the first West African peacekeepers to enter the besieged capital.

Vice President Moses Blah said the handover is planned for Monday, but rebel leaders warned they will not accept any ally of Taylor holding power as Liberia tries to find a way out 14 years of bloodshed.

Outside Monrovia, peacekeepers reportedly seized a new weapons shipment from Libya that apparently was destined for government forces in violation of a U.N. arms embargo.

Rebels and government troops are fighting in several parts of the country, and a two-month battle over Monrovia has killed hundreds of civilians and left the 1.3 million people crowded into the divided city short of food and water.

People poured into the streets when more than 100 Nigerian soldiers in the peacekeeping mission drove into the capital. "We want peace! No more war!" the crowds chanted. The peacekeepers blew kisses and waved white handkerchiefs.

Nigerian Lt. Col. Amos Nudamajo would not say when the force would begin regular patrols of the city, saying only that would happen "at the appropriate time."

The force's first foray into Monrovia came as Congress formally endorsed Taylor's letter of resignation and he designated the 56-year-old Blah to succeed him.

Blah told The Associated Press he received a telephone call Thursday morning from Taylor who said he would be sworn in as president Monday.

"He congratulated me, and he said he is hoping I will cope with the situation on the ground," Blah said. "A lot of people are suffering."

Despite a fearsome reputation as a former guerrilla general, Blah is a quiet, unassuming man who drives himself around Monrovia in a Jeep while other officials travel in flashy motorcades. He was trained as a mechanic and has traveled extensively.

Taylor indicated he would go into exile "very shortly," said Blah, who was a feared Taylor ally in the 1988-96 civil war that killed 100,000 people and put Taylor in power over a nation left in ruins.

However, Taylor has repeatedly hedged on when he will take up an offer of asylum in Nigeria.

But Thursday night he told CNN: "I can assure you that I will be here not one minute longer than necessary," he refused to say when he would leave Liberia. "I will be stepping down on Monday."

His government said that would happen only after enough foreign peacekeepers were on the ground - and if a war crimes indictment was dropped. A U.N.-backed court alleges Taylor supported a brutal rebel group in neighboring Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war.

"Nigeria has chosen to ignore that court, and I will be going to Nigeria," Taylor said in the CNN interview. "They've all seen the political nature of this ... they see no reason why I should be harassed. I will go to Nigeria, God willing."

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Taylor would not get out of the war crimes charges.

"If Mr. Taylor leaves Liberia, as we expect him to do in the very near future, and is given asylum in Nigeria, this does not remove the indictment in any way," Powell said.

Rebel leaders reached by phone at the scene of off-and-on peace talks in Ghana said the rebels would observe an often-violated June 17 cease-fire pact for Monrovia, but insisted they would not accept Taylor's allies holding power.

Kabineh Ja'neh, a leader of the rebel group besieging Monrovia, said his men "will not recognize Mr. Blah or any other chosen representative of Mr. Taylor's criminal empire."

Ja'neh said negotiations for a comprehensive peace accord leading to a transitional government were continuing in Ghana's capital, Accra.

At the airport 30 miles from Monrovia, peacekeepers intercepted a plane carrying an arms shipment that landed overnight in defiance of a U.N. arms embargo, according to airport workers, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

West African officers confirmed only that a Boeing 707 arrived from Libya and that its cargo was seized. Nigerian soldiers were seen guarding two navy blue shipping containers - one empty, the other locked.

Taylor's defense minister, Daniel Chea, denied the cargo of "military equipment" arrived by plane. He said it was part of the government's movement of supplies to the southeastern city of Buchanan and the northern town of Gbarnga, where fighting persists between government and rebel forces.

Taylor received guerrilla training in Libya before starting the uprising in 1988 that eventually put him in power.

The Nigerian peacekeepers arrived in Monrovia aboard white armored personnel carriers, trucks and sport utility vehicles, traveling from their base at the airport.

"Oga, welcome!" some people yelled, using the word for "big man" in the Nigerian language of Yoruba.

"I'm going with them," shouted Prince Phillip, a young man running alongside the convoy. "We need to eat. We're tired of this war."

During a pause in the peacekeepers' drive, a man handed his baby boy to a Nigerian soldier sitting on an armored vehicle. The soldier held up the toddler briefly and waved at the delighted crowd.

The peacekeepers drove through the government-held downtown and past the presidential mansion where Taylor's troops hurriedly dismantled roadblocks to allow the convoy to pass. The Nigerians made no attempt to enter the city's rebel-held island port.

Despite the celebrations, Monrovia remained on edge after more than two weeks of mortar barrages and gunbattles.

After the convoy passed, the sudden chatter of machine guns sent people running for cover. It was not clear whether Taylor loyalists were celebrating the peacekeepers' arrival or trying to disperse the crowd.

Hoping to quell the fighting, West African leaders have promised to build up a 3,250-soldier peace force that will eventually be replaced by a broader U.N. force.

The United States has faced mounting international pressure to take the lead in helping to restore peace in Liberia - a nation founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century. But Washington has insisted that American involvement will be limited to helping with getting food and other supplies in.