WEST African nations seeking a solution to the 18-month stalemate between rebels and the interim government of Liberia appear ready to risk military action to stem the destabilizing effect of the conflict on the region.
The proliferation of arms in Liberia and the spreading influence of rebel leader Charles Taylor have raised concerns from Nigeria to Ivory Coast to France about declining regional security.
Despite threats from Mr. Taylor, who controls all of Liberia except the capital, Monrovia, West African peacekeeping forces planned to deploy troops throughout the country today.
"I don't believe it's Charles Taylor's wish to take on the will-power of the sub-region," says Maj. Gen. Ishaya Bakut, field commander of the regional force known as ECOMOG, now stationed in the capital. "The peacekeeping force is not just the troops in Monrovia. It's the power of the entire sub-region, and the will of the region."
Liberia's 11-month civil war ended in November 1990 with Monrovia under the control of ECOMOG-backed interim-President Amos Sawyer and the rest of the country under the control of Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).
Since then, several agreements between the interim government, the West African peacekeepers, and Taylor to disarm and encamp NPFL forces - the main obstacle to elections scheduled for August - have failed.
Taylor, expressing concern for his own security, has continually rejected deployment of ECOMOG troops in his territory. On Tuesday, however, a conference of NPFL leaders called for unilateral disarmament and encampment of all factions in Liberia under West African supervision.
Meanwhile, attempts to resolve the conflict could have wide-reaching consequences for the balance of power in West Africa.
Nigeria's military government, which will hand power over to a civilian government on Jan. 3, 1993, is looking to have a major diplomatic success in Liberia before the transition. Failure to resolve the Liberian crisis would seriously undermine Nigeria's claim to being the regional leader.
Ivory Coast President Felix Houphouet-Boigny faces mounting domestic problems. A failure to revive the peace process that he set in motion would seriously undermine the prestige of one of Africa's most respected leaders.
Both leaders are aware that Taylor has provided a base for dissidents from surrounding countries who fought for him in return for his assistance in their attempts at staging military action in their own countries.
In March 1991, for example, NPFL troops joined Sierra Leonean dissidents led by Cpl. Foday Sankoh in an invasion of Sierra Leone, which has now been all-but repelled by a joint Guinean-Sierra Leonean force.
A new key element in the Liberian peace process is the role of France, which hopes to remain the key Western influence in its former colonial stronghold.
France's position is one of torn allegiances.
On one side, Ivory Coast, France's closest ally in the region, currently is experiencing a steep rise in violent crime, due to the easy availability of weapons along its border with Liberia, Ivorian sources say.
"The situation in Liberia is intolerable for the region," says Ivory Coast Foreign Minister Amara Essy.
But on the other side of the French problem, Taylor's territory includes one of the largest sources of iron ore in the world, at Yekepa, in the northern part of the country. A consortium of French companies presently is involved in developing the mine.
This ensures vast profits for Taylor, who is able to use the money to arm his forces, adding to the existing security threat.
"The French have decided that Charles Taylor is the one to deal with," says a Western diplomat in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
Another complication to the mining operations is Guinea, which borders Taylor's territory to the north. Liberia and Guinea for over 20 years have been attempting to negotiate a joint venture whereby iron ore from seams on the Guinean side is transported by rail to the Taylor-held, Liberian port of Buchanan.
Guinea, a former French colony where French companies also have interests, is fighting Taylor's troops in Sierra Leone.
Guinea reportedly also is being used as a base by supporters of two Liberian political parties - the Liberian Peoples' Party and the Liberian Action Party. Sources in Monrovia say about 300 Liberian supporters of LPP leader and interim-President Sawyer are undergoing military training there.