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Rebels Says Liberia Hindering Peace Talks

June 16, 2003

ACCRA, Ghana (AP) _ Liberian rebel negotiators claimed Monday that government forces were jeopardizing peace talks to end the West African nation’s civil war with repeated attacks in the capital.

A top Western mediator at the talks in Ghana said Monday that talks were at a stalemate because Liberia’s government balked at demands that President Charles Taylor resign as part of any cease-fire. Even one of the talks’ most outwardly optimistic mediators admitted there was little hope of a cease-fire soon.

``We are not so close,″ acknowledged Mohamed ibn Chambas, executive secretary of the west African regional bloc overseeing the talks.

Rebels battling to oust Taylor made the most intense push of their 3-year-old war two weeks ago, repeatedly crossing into the outskirts of Liberia’s seaside capital, Monrovia, before being repelled. Taylor controls little outside the capital.

Fighting prompted the French-led military evacuation of about 500 foreigners from the capital. Fighting around the capital eased early last week.

In a formal protest Monday, the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy movement urged the international community and mediators ``to impress upon Mr. Taylor to stop attacking our positions so that talks can go on and be successful,″ rebel delegate Edward Sali told The Associated Press.

Rebels gave no details of the alleged offensive by Taylor’s soldiers, beyond saying it occurred Sunday night. Liberian Defense Minister Daniel Chea denied any new government attacks, but acknowledged possible ``skirmishes″ between the sides. In Monrovia, Taylor press secretary Varney Eassawe said, ``We are only maintaining an aggressive defense.″

However, a senior Liberian defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that rebel positions ``came under attack″ Sunday in Liberia’s southeast.

Talks between Liberia’s government and two rebel groups are playing out in Ghana under international mediation and U.S. prodding. Rebels want Taylor to give way to an interim transitional government, in which Taylor would have no part.

Taylor had declared in an emotional speech at the June 4 opening of the talks that he would step down and stay out of any transition government.

At the time Taylor spoke, a U.N.-backed war crimes court had just announced his indictment and was urging Taylor’s arrest at the Ghana conference. Taylor has not repeated his pledge to step down since returning safely to Liberia.

Liberia, sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest republic, was founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves. A valued U.S. base for activities against Libya during the Cold War, it was then Africa’s largest per capita recipient of U.S. aid.

Taylor, descendant of one former American slave family, launched Liberia into civil war in 1989 with a Libyan-backed offensive against Liberia’s government.

The war ended in 1996 after 150,000 deaths. Taylor, emerging as the strongest warlord, won presidential elections the next year.

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