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Liberia's Taylor not ready to leave

President says he's waiting on peacekeeping force

Members of a U.S. military assessment team step off a helicopter in Monrovia on Monday.
Members of a U.S. military assessment team step off a helicopter in Monrovia on Monday.

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MONROVIA, Liberia (CNN) -- Liberian President Charles Taylor said in an interview Monday that he would honor his pledge to accept asylum in Nigeria only when conditions were right.

"My leaving office is dependent on two factors: one, my willingness to do so, and secondly, the presence of an international force that will stabilize the situation in the country as I depart," Taylor said.

Taylor said he would leave soon after such a force is in place. "I will then proceed to exercise the invitation granted to me by the president of Nigeria."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement Monday that he welcomed Taylor's decision Sunday to accept the offer. The terms of the offer were not disclosed, and no timetable was set.

A U.N. official said Annan spoke by phone to Taylor a few days ago and told him he needed to leave soon.

Taylor asked Annan for more time, mentioning possible departure dates in January and October, one official said, but Annan told Taylor the international community wants him out as soon as possible.

A U.S. military assessment team arrived Monday in Monrovia to begin gauging humanitarian needs and possibly to lay the groundwork for a deployment of U.S. peacekeeping troops.

Half the 32 members are Marines and half are experts in civil engineering, civil affairs, medicine, water purification, logistics and contracting.

"I'm here merely to assess humanitarian assistance," said U.S. Navy Capt. Roger Coldiron, leader of the team, which landed by helicopter at the U.S. Embassy compound.

"They are going to take a very hard look at what the humanitarian situation is on the ground," U.S. Ambassador John W. Blaney said. "This country is in bad shape. ... Much of the infrastructure [has] collapsed."

Most of the country's 3.3 million people are starving or sick, and a third are homeless, the result of almost perpetual war since 1989.

One of the assessment team's tasks is to facilitate the return of nongovernmental aid missions, most of which have fled the country. The U.S. State Department said Monday that the U.S. aid mission would return Tuesday.

The U.S. assessment team will send its findings to U.S. European Command, the Pentagon and the White House to help the Bush administration decide whether to deploy U.S. troops to Liberia.

Washington could send as many as 2,000 Marines to work with a 3,000-person force from the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, U.S. military officials said. The Marines might be drawn from those on station near the East African nation of Djibouti. (Full story)

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said President Bush, who called on Taylor to step aside several times, would "wait and see to be certain that [Taylor] does indeed go. That is a vital first step for peace to be maintained."

Taylor said Monday that Bush's calls for him to resign did not influence his decision.

"It was not President Bush that made the call on me to step down before I decided to step down," Taylor said. "Bush is late on this matter.

"So my leaving from office is not dependent on the arrival or the departure of the Americans," Taylor said.

Aaron Kollie, deputy chief of mission at the Liberian Embassy in Washington, said ECOWAS officials met in Accra, Ghana, to discuss an orderly transition.

But Kollie said Taylor's pledge to leave "should not be interpreted as a permanent exile." He said Taylor should be able to return at some point as a private citizen. Taylor's presence could even be helpful, Kollie said, because he is a powerful figure.

Taylor himself held out hope of returning. "I can rest a little bit, and maybe come back after a little while," Taylor said.

Taylor's rise to power

In 1989, Taylor led a revolt against the Liberian dictator Samuel Doe that triggered seven years of civil war, during which an estimated 200,000 people died, according to the U.S. State Department.

Taylor's faction emerged as the dominant force, and after a mediated peace settlement in 1996, he won a special election in 1997 that opponents said was marred by corruption and intimidation.

Fighting resumed in 2000 when Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy revolted against Taylor. Thousands have died in the past three years.

Taylor has not said when he would leave.
Taylor has not said when he would leave.

The rebel group and its allies hold 60 percent of the country. A cease-fire agreement reached June 17 did not not stop the fighting initially but has held in recent days.

A U.N.-backed court indicted Taylor on war crimes charges in June, accusing him of arming and training rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone in exchange for diamonds. A 10-year civil war there killed 50,000 people, according to the U.S. government.

The United Nations and humanitarian groups say Taylor-backed rebel fighters throughout the region killed and tortured civilians and abducted people, including children, forcing them to fight. Taylor denies the charges.

A special prosecutor with the court said offering Taylor asylum from the charges would violate international law. The United States is tight-lipped on whether Taylor should escape prosecution. One senior U.S. official told CNN the issue "is really on the back burner."

British U.N. Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, who just returned from leading a Security Council delegation to West Africa, said Monday, "We are for no impunity for people indicted ... for gross abuses of humanitarian law. But there are political decisions to be made in a situation like this."

West Africa in turmoil

Susan Rice, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said there is a concern that in Taylor's absence the rebel forces -- now engaged in cease-fire talks -- could step up the conflict.

"There does have to be some careful orchestration here," she said.

"Liberia is sort of the cancer that has infected the rest of the subregion," Rice said. "It has been exported by ... Taylor to Sierra Leone, to Guinea, to the Ivory Coast, and it is destabilizing all of West Africa."

She said Nigeria was "taking a bullet" for the region by offering Taylor asylum.

West Africa in turmoil

There are "no good options," Rice said. Taylor could "die fighting in Monrovia, or go back into the bush to live to fight another day, or agree to go to Nigeria, in which case he's most likely, although not certain, to skip the jurisdiction of the war crimes tribunal."

The "worst case scenario," Rice said, would be for Taylor to "not only elude the indictment, but ... [also] reconstitute his rebel army and come back to destabilize Liberia and the subregion."

The White House is focusing on Liberia partly because of its ties to the United States. The country was founded in 1822 by the American Colonization Society, whose goal was to resettle emancipated slaves in Africa.

Bush left Monday night for a trip to Africa, during which he will discuss the situation with leaders of South Africa, Botswana, Uganda, and the West African nations Senegal and Nigeria. (Full story)

CNN correspondents Brent Sadler and Jeff Koinange in Monrovia, White House correspondent Dana Bash and State Department producer Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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