THE reported death of Liberian President Samuel Doe Monday at the hands of a rebel group may actually help West African efforts to end nearly nine months of civil war. West African officials and Liberian exiles, as well as leaders of the two internal rebel groups, had viewed Mr. Doe's removal from office as a necessary first step toward halting the fighting.
``I think it [the death] furthers the process of getting the interim government installed and furthers the process of peace,'' says Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a prominent opponent of Doe who lives in exile in Washington.
But Doe's capture and reported death also raises questions about the credibility, efficiency, and impartiality of the five-nation West African ``peacekeeping'' force now in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.
The key question is how the 3,000-member force could have failed to protect Doe in a meeting it had arranged between him and rebel leader Prince Johnson.
Doe was captured by Mr. Johnson at the meeting on Sunday after a shootout that wounded Doe. Johnson apparently then took Doe to his camp for interrogation. Reports of Doe's death later began emerging.
``We're pretty sure he's dead,'' said a United States State Department official late Monday.
``No one will ever know what happened'' at the intended peace session between Doe and Johnson, he said. ``It's unclear why Doe left the [presidential] mansion and how he accepted to meet with [the peace-keeping force].''
Reached by telephone in Washington, Ms. Sirleaf, who served as finance minister in a previous Liberian government, told the Monitor: ``We see an invisible hand,'' in Doe's sudden removal from power. Asked what she meant, she replied: ``Call Langley,'' which is the headquarters in Virginia of the US Central Intelligence Agency. The State Department official dismissed her suggestion as ``pure nonsense,'' and said the US was taking great care not to take sides in the Liberian war.
The five-nation military force in Liberia is operating under the umbrella of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). After Doe's capture Sunday, ECOWAS Executive Secretary Abass Bundu told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that Doe's removal from power was ``within the purvey [provisions] of the ECOWAS peace plan,'' which includes setting up an interim government before elections.
Four people now claim to lead Liberia:
Prince Johnson, who soon after capturing Doe, called the BBC and declared: ``I am now the president of the Republic of Liberia.'' But Marcus Dahn, Johnson's spokesman in the US, says Johnson is prepared to step down as soon as an interim government arrives to lead the country to ``free elections.''
Charles Taylor, leader of the largest rebel group, declared himself president weeks ago as his troops moved into Monrovia. Mr. Taylor has attacked the West African forces, apparently feeling cheated of final victory after beginning the war in December and gaining control of most of the country. Taylor said he would once again make a drive to gain control of Monrovia. He controls the outskirts, while the ECOWAS, Johnson, and Doe forces control the city itself.
David Nimley, head of Doe's remaining forces, was named by Doe's associates Sunday to lead until an interim government was set up.
Amos Sawyer, who was elected earlier this month by some 50 Liberian exiles to head the interim government. Mr. Sawyer headed the Liberian People's Party, which was active prior to Doe's 1980 coup.