WASHINGTON — IN battered Liberia the absence of war has not yet turned into peace. The capital city of Monrovia is regaining a semblance of normalcy, thanks to the presence of troops from West African neighbors. But rebels still control the countryside - and Liberia's three-month-old truce could collapse if ongoing peace talks don't make more headway. ``If there is not genuine agreement, and talks just fall apart, the prospects are very grim,'' says Hirim Ruiz, West Africa expert at the United States Committee for Refugees.
The all-Liberia peace conference began last Friday in Monrovia. It represents the first meeting since the civil war began of representatives from all three warring factions, plus leaders from Liberian civil society and officials from Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) countries.
The conference aim is to establish a formal interim government under the terms of a plan brokered by the West African peacekeepers. A permanent leader would then be picked in nationwide elections later this year.
As of this writing, however, the talks are at a standstill. Many delegates blame Charles Taylor, leader of the largest rebel force. Mr. Taylor has not yet shown up at the talks, despite previous promises of attendance. Some analysts suspect he is delaying and plotting his own ascendancy to power.
``In my view, Charles Taylor is interested in personal gain,'' says a US official who follows events in the region.
It was Taylor who launched the Liberian civil war in late 1989. His forces did most of the fighting that last year gradually crushed troops loyal to former Liberian President Samuel Doe. Mr. Doe was apprehended and killed in September by Prince Johnson, leader of a smaller, breakaway rebel group. Remnants of the former Liberian Army are the third Liberian fighting faction.
Prince Johnson has since largely cooperated with the West African soldiers sent in by ECOWAS to stop the fighting, and shown no overt sign of wanting to seize the country for himself. Taylor, on the other hand, has declared himself president and refuses to recognize the authority of a temporary government.
THE result has been a country split in two. Taylor controls much of the Liberian countryside. The West African peacekeeping force, plus Prince Johnson, controls Monrovia. ``Communication back and forth is nonexistent. Travel isn't possible,'' says Dan Olson, secretary for Africa of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
In Monrovia, at least life for Liberians is no longer as desperate as it was at the height of the fighting. The restoration of order has made it possible for food to trickle in from the United States and other donors, alleviating shortages that last fall caused 50 people a day to die in the capital from hunger and disease. The food situation is still delicate. Aid must be shipped in small lots from neighboring countries, as the port of Monrovia is in no shape to unload big ships.
Relief supplies also are flowing into Taylor-held rural areas. Overall, Liberia will need an estimated 190,000 tons of emergency food aid in fiscal 1991, which began Oct. 1. Currently, the US government plans to supply 137,000 tons of this goal.
Events of the next few days, or weeks, may well determine whether Liberia progresses toward peace or resumes fighting.
If Taylor cooperates with the peace conference, reconciliation of the country's factions may be possible. Bitter tribal divisions caused by the fighting need to be healed.
If Taylor simply tries to seize power, the West African peacekeeping force would surely fight to stop him. If he is able to manipulate Liberian politics to somehow slide into the presidency, it's not clear what ECOWAS would do.
ECOWAS members ``are weary at the length of the political process and the stalling on the part of Taylor,'' says the US official.