GBARNGA, LIBERIA — SITTING on a ledge outside a small home here, Aaron Vesselee, a retired employee of a religious radio station, looks cautiously around. Men in plain clothes, apparently rebel guards, have approached within earshot.
After a few vague remarks, Mr. Vesselee projects in a loud, clear voice: "I want my child to go to school. Where do I get registration money? Parents were poor even before the war."
The criticism is directed at Charles Taylor, a Liberian economist-turned-rebel-leader who once escaped custody from a Massachusetts jail after being charged with stealing Liberian government funds.
Mr. Taylor gained control of all areas outside the capital during the 1990 civil war. He is viewed as the mostly likely to win a presidential vote, because he is well-known.
But Taylor is also criticized for widespread misrule and human rights violations and for failing to cooperate with the interim government in progress toward elections hoped for this spring.
United Nations official Ross Mountain, whose office is in Monrovia, says malnutrition, high during the war, has dropped sharply since then in rural areas. But there is a "rising incidence of disease up country, and a lack of medical supplies to combat them," he says.
Carl Tinstman, UNICEF director in Liberia, says his agency is shifting its attention to the interior "because the need is much greater up there" than in Monrovia.
"Schools are practically, or totally without equipment; drugs are in short supply," Mr. Tinstman says.
Food is also scarce. Some private relief groups, however, have been able to operate in Taylor's area since the November 1990 cease-fire. Catholic Relief Services, for example, has distributed 63,000 tons of food since the fighting ended.
In a December study of the territory under Taylor's rule, the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights noted:
* "Reports of widespread and frequent physical attacks against civilians, including the rape of young women at NPFL [Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia] checkpoints."
* "Reports that up to 1,000 detainees are being held in horrendous conditions in makeshift detention centers."
* "Reports that the NPFL denies freedom of movement to individuals living in areas under its control."
Taylor's press secretary, J. Garswa Yarmeto, says the Lawyers Committee never visited the rebel-controlled interior to get first-hand information.
The Lawyers Committee responds that the investigators were "repeatedly rebuffed" by Taylor officials when they requested permission to travel outside Monrovia.
"A lot of atrocities took place that should not have, and we're very sorry," says Juconte Thomas Woewiyu, Taylor's minister of defense. "Once you get into destroying society with a civil war, a whole lot of things happen. We're conscious of that, and we're doing our best to control that.
"Most of these abuses came out of people trying to settle scores against one another. We've had to take serious action to stop those. Some people have had to be executed for killing too many civilians," he says.
THE minister also acknowledges that some of Taylor's troops are as young as nine or 10 years of age. Many were in villages under attack by Doe forces during the war. One 9-year-old boy "shot seven Doe soldiers before we took over the town," Woewiyu says. Many of the boys lost their parents and were homeless. He says he would like them to return to school.
Human rights groups and Monrovia newspapers have criticized Taylor for continued aggression against members of late President Samuel Doe's tribe.
United Nations officials in Monrovia say there was a sudden influx in January of some 3,500 refugees into neighboring Ivory Coast from Grand Gedeh, Mr. Doe's homeland, but could not determine the cause.
Africa Watch, a Washington-based organization, in a report last fall, cited allegations of "indiscriminate killings of civilians" by Taylor rebels in Grand Gedeh.
The Lawyers Committee cites reports of "systematic denials of freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association" throughout the interior.
Africa Watch alleges: "Dissent is not tolerated in NPLF territory, creating fear and uncertainty among the civilian population."
Although he has yet to meet the pre-election conditions agreed to last fall in an accord with the interim government, Taylor says he backs multiparty democracy. He says he prefers only two parties, but will accept more if people want more. And, he adds, he does not want to remain a soldier forever.
m not a soldier by profession, I'm an economist. I came up here to do what you Americans do very well: fight for what you believe in - democracy, fair play, justice."