Liberians have waited a long time for the cease-fire that began early Wednesday, designed to end a conflict between government forces and rebels that has lasted more than three years.
The deal, signed Tuesday in Ghana and brokered by the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), calls for the formation of an interim government that excludes Charles Taylor, the country's internationally-reviled president. The warring parties have also called for an international military force to help stabilize the nation, which has suffered civil war for much of the past 15 years, contributing to the appalling unrest and refugee crisis throughout the region.
"[The cease-fire] is very important for ECOWAS and for Liberia," says Gen. Cheick Umar Diarra, ECOWAS deputy executive secretary. "The humanitarian agencies were waiting for this cease-fire agreement [so that they can] go back to provide assistance to the people affected by this war."
Analysts applaud the truce but say big uncertainties remain over the prospects for lasting peace in Liberia and the region. One of those uncertainties is whether Mr. Taylor will actually step down.
As well, Western countries - and the US in particular - are coming under heavy pressure to help support stability in the event of Taylor's departure. Critics say the international community and rebel troops have adopted a policy of unseating Taylor without giving enough thought to what will follow in both the country and the region.
"The United States must lead the effort and fulfill its responsibilities to ensure a successful transition from the Taylor era," said a memorandum published last week by the International Crisis Group, a global think tank. "Just as [Britain] led in Sierra Leone, and France led in the Ivory Coast, the US must now assist the nation it helped establish, including through the deployment of troops if necessary."
The peace deal, which was made after rebels surrounded Monrovia, Liberia's coastal capital, calls for composition of the transitional government to be agreed to within 30 days. A reconnaissance team including representatives from ECOWAS, the United Nations, and an international contact group on Liberia is due to arrive in the country by the weekend to determine how many troops might be needed for peacekeeping. ECOWAS says the scope of its Ghana talks will now widen in an attempt to secure a long-term governance solution for Liberia that includes parties not involved in the fighting.
Taylor, who was elected president in 1997 after emerging as the leading warlord in a devastating 1989-96 conflict, has yet to react formally to the cease-fire, which was signed by his defense minister. Taylor promised during the Ghana talks to step down if it would help bring peace, although he also said that a war-crimes indictment by a UN-backed court in Sierra Leone would need to be rescinded if he was to proceed with the peace process. Taylor denies international accusations - which have led to UN sanctions - that he has provoked conflict in such neighboring countries as Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone.
Many observers welcome the prospect of Taylor's departure but raise concerns about what will replace him. The main rebel group, known as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), and another group known as the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), have given little sense of having a wider political agenda beyond ousting Taylor. The rebel groups are thought to control more than half the country between them.
Analysts say the continued turbulence reflects a much bigger problem of governance that extends far beyond Liberia's borders.
A report by a UN panel of experts published last month claims that the surrounding region is "awash" with weapons, and said armed youths from four countries move freely across borders in pursuit of a "life of conflict, banditry, and lawlessness." The document paints a picture of internecine proxy conflict in the region, accusing Guinea of supporting LURD and Ivory Coast of supporting MODEL, although both governments deny the charges.
The pressure on the US to play a bigger role in the Liberia peace process reflects both historic links and the close cold-war relationship between the two countries.
Liberia was founded by freed American slaves in 1847 and was ruled by an autocratic elite of US descent until a bloody 1980 coup led by Samuel Doe, whose brutal regime received hundreds of millions of dollars of US aid during the 1980s. In Mark Huband's book, "The Liberian Civil War," the author says Liberia's cold-war importance to the US "lay almost solely in the form of strategic installations," such as the Omega transmission station that helped ships in the Atlantic and aircraft to navigate.
Supporters of Western action in Liberia point to the recent examples of Sierra Leone, where British and UN troops intervened to prevent a return to civil war; and Ivory Coast, where a large French peacekeeping force is overseeing a cease-fire between the government and rebel forces.
In the longer term, many analysts say rich nations must move beyond a strategy of simply dealing with crises in West Africa as they arise, concentrating instead on helping develop a comprehensive peace plan that addresses the region's deep underlying sociopolitical problems.
"The region has been unstable for a very long time, and Liberia has been at the center of that," says Tessa Kordeczka, researcher for the Africa program of Amnesty International, the human rights group. "There are large numbers of combatants who realize that without a gun in their hands they are not going to get very far."