Liberian president will step down if peacekeepers are sent

Liberian President Charles Taylor, under U.S. pressure to quit, said Friday he had agreed to step down but urged the world to send peacekeepers to prevent chaos in the aftermath, Reuters reports.

President Bush said he was encouraged by Taylor’s words and has told the Pentagon to send experts to West Africa to discuss with the United Nations and other countries in the region how to achieve stability in Liberia, a spokesman told Reuters.

A senior Nigerian official said former warlord Taylor, suspected of instigating a tangle of West African conflicts and hunted by a war crimes court in Sierra Leone, had accepted an offer of asylum.

Taylor’s departure has been called essential for peace by Bush, who visits Africa next week and is mulling the possibility of sending hundreds of troops to help end nearly 14 years of non-stop violence in Liberia.

“The important thing here is for international peacekeepers to come to Liberia as quickly as possible to take charge of the situation if I am going to step down,” Taylor told reporters outside the presidential mansion, warning that if they did not it “could be extremely chaotic.”

West African military chiefs meeting in Ghana pledged 3,000 troops from the region and said they also hoped for contributions from the United States, South Africa and Morocco. They want a total peacekeeping force of at least 5,000.

Bush’s spokesman said the U.S. president was encouraged by Taylor’s offer to go.

“The president urges Mr. Taylor to back up his encouraging words with deeds so that stability of the region can be achieved, so that peace can become effective,” Ari Fleischer told reporters aboard Air Force One.

Fleischer said Bush had not yet decided whether to send U.S. peacekeepers to Liberia, but left open the possibility a decision could come this weekend.

A Pentagon team of 10 to 15 military and civilian officials would go to West Africa to do preliminary planning in the event peacekeepers are sent, one defense official said.

Taylor has been under growing pressure to quit since some 700 people were killed last month in rebel attacks on Monrovia. The insurgents hold nearly two-thirds of a country founded more than 150 years ago by freed American slaves.

Aid workers and military sources said rebels skirmished with Taylor’s forces well outside Monrovia Friday. They hoped it did not indicate another brewing attempt to seize power.

Inside the battered city, police fired in the air to break up a march by hundreds of people demanding Taylor step down. They stoned police vehicles. One marcher carried a U.S. flag, others scrawled anti-Taylor slogans on torn cardboard.

A senior official in regional giant Nigeria said Taylor had accepted an offer of asylum and been told he should take it up this month instead of within 40 days as he had requested.

When asked, Taylor did not deny he had accepted. But he said it was not the most important issue for now.

Taylor said he had spoken to Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo who was expected in Monrovia Sunday.

U.N. diplomats said this week Taylor had rejected an earlier Nigerian exile offer because authorities could not guarantee that he would not be extradited to face trial in Sierra Leone at a U.N.-backed court for war crimes.

Taylor is accused of trading guns for diamonds with rebels who left a trail of mutilation, rape, and murder.

But a U.N. Security Council team this week pointed out that Nigeria was under no legal obligation to turn him over since it had no extradition treaty for the special court in Sierra Leone.

Taylor won 1997 elections, emerging as the dominant faction leader after a war that left 200,000 dead in the 1990s. Foes from that conflict started a new one three years ago.

Under the constitution, Taylor’s successor would be Vice-President Moses Blah. A loyalist from the days of the bush struggle, Blah was detained briefly last month on suspicion of involvement in an alleged U.S. instigated coup plot.