THE arrival of 3,500 peacekeeping troops Saturday from five West African nations in the Liberian capital of Monrovia marked the first step in an attempt to end that country's civil war. The second step, which begins today, involves forming a temporary government to rebuild the shattered nation and lead it to free elections. Exiled Liberian political leaders, many of them living in the United States, Europe, and Africa, are gathering to begin talks today in Gambia.
But to halt the fighting will require more than agreement among exiled leaders. On Friday, rebel leader Charles Taylor reportedly said he would attend the Gambian talks, sponsored by the 16-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), despite his pledge to take up arms against the ECOWAS peace-keeping force.
The West African plan for Liberia is to exclude from the temporary government Mr. Taylor, Prince Johnson - who heads a smaller faction of rebels - and the now-besieged President Samuel Doe, whose several hundred remaining troops control only a few miles around the presidential mansion.
Taylor's rebels reportedly fired on the peacekeeping force when it arrived. He has opposed the West African intervention, calling the forces ``aggressors.'' Taylor's forces control most of the country, including a portion of Monrovia. But he has been unable to make the final drive to conquer Mr. Doe, hindered by Mr. Johnson's rebels, who also oppose Taylor.
Johnson, whose forces control the port where the West Africans landed Saturday, welcomed the peacekeeping force. Doe similarly approves of their intervention, though his spokesman recently said that Doe wants to stay in power for another year as a transition to a new government. That would be unacceptable to Taylor and Johnson and to Liberian exiles opposed to Doe.
The West African forces are acting under the direction of ECOWAS. Five of its member nations - Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Gambia, and Sierra Leone - are supplying troops. The ECOWAS preference is not to fight it out with Taylor, but to reach a cease-fire with him. Johnson and Doe have agreed to a cease-fire.
An outside force is ``the only possible solution'' to ending the war, says J. Gus Liebenow, a Liberian specialist and professor of political science at the University of Indiana in Bloomington.
Nevertheless, a cease-fire and a peaceful solution to the country's civil war is in the works. Attendees at the Gambian talks represent varying political persuasions. But one Liberian who participated in preliminary meetings in Washington thinks there will be cooperation.
``My sense is they are becoming of one mind on what needs to be done now,'' says Elwood Dunn, chief of staff to former Liberian president William Tolbert, who was assassinated in the April 1980 coup led by the current president, Doe.
The Liberians gathering in Gambia, says Dunn, will try to form ``a broad-based coalition of political interests that will administer the affairs of the country ... and prepare elections. The future of the country depends on this [i.e., free elections].''
Mr. Dunn, a political science professor at the University of the South, in Sewannee, Tenn., was interviewed in New York by phone enroute to the Gambia talks. Among those expected at the talks are Byron Tarr, former minister of planning under Doe; Gabriel Bacchus Matthews, who led the United People's Party, the main opposition party prior to the Doe coup; and Edward Kessely, leader of the Unity Party, which contested the 1985 elections but made a weak showing.
Some of the Liberian exiles want the United Nations to help set up election machinery and supervise the vote, as the UN did in Namibia. Others want the UN only to observe elections.
Yet an end to the war may not end intertribal fighting, Mr. Liebenow says.
``There are too many guns all over the country,'' he says. ``Hostility between [tribes] is so great. ... I think it will be very difficult to have peace.''