Indicted Liberian Leader Surrenders Power

monrovia, Liberia – President Charles Taylor, the former warlord blamed for nearly 14 years of bloodshed in Liberia and indicted for war crimes in Sierra Leone, surrendered power Monday to his vice president.

Pushed to resign by West African leaders and the US, 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.”

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 transitional government until elections can be held.

West African leaders said Blah would hand power to a transitional government on the second Tuesday of October.

Pickup trucks full of armed rebels raced toward the front Monday.

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

Taylor had pledged to hand over power at one minute before noon, but was delayed at the airport where he welcomed African leaders. He has accepted Niger­ia’s asylum offer but has hedged on when he will go.

Aides to Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who did not attend Taylor’s resignation, said Taylor was expected in the Ni­gerian capital, Abuja, on Monday.

Two months of intermittent rebel sieges have left more than 1,000 people dead in Monrovia, as government and insurgent forces fought in this city of 1.3 million. The war has left Taylor controlling little but downtown.

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.

Ghana’s President John Kufuor, head of a West African bloc that has sent peacekeepers to Liberia, addressed about 300 Liberian and other dignitaries.

“Today’s ceremony marks the end of an era in Liberia,” Kufuor said. “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.

“It is indeed a shameful thing that as Africans we have killed ourselves for such a long time,” said South African President Thabo Mbeki, who received a standing ovation. “It is indeed time that this war should come to an end.”

Outside, Monrovia’s beleaguered people cheered the Ni­ger­ian peacekeepers—part of a vanguard peace force meant to build to 3,250 West African soldiers.

“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.”

Taylor remained defiant to the end, on Sunday calling the rebel uprising an “American war” and suggesting it was motivated by US eagerness for Liberia’s gold, diamonds and other reserves.

US 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 homes 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 rape, robbery, torture, forced labor and summary killings. Rebels, to a lesser extent so far, likewise are accused of abuse.

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