In Liberia, the Taylor era ends

Charles Taylor stepped down Monday as president, but a power vacuum could lead to more social disorder.

A bitter Charles Taylor stepped down Monday, handing power to Vice President Moses Blah. The embattled Liberian president's resignation ends weeks of speculation about whether he would bend to international pressure, and opens the door for peace after nearly 14 years of war.

An hour after Taylor's resignation, three American war ships carrying Marines pulled into sight of the Liberian coast as hundreds of Liberians cheered in the streets.

"Monday's ceremony marks the end of an era for Liberia," said Ghanaian President John Kufuor, head of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and one of three African presidents who attended the inauguration of Mr. Blah. "It is our expectation that from Tuesday, the war in Liberia has ended and we are ushering in a period of peace."

The handover is the first peaceful transition of power in this tumultuous West African nation for more than 30 years. Taylor's two predecessors, Samuel Doe and William Tolbert, were both assassinated while in office. But despite the visible presence of Nigerian peacekeepers, who still number only a few hundred, there are fears of a power vacuum. Some of Taylor's officials have warned of chaos after his departure from a city that is still divided between government and rebel forces.

The new administration of President Blah is scheduled to last only a few months before being replaced by a transitional government agreed to by negotiators from Liberia's warring factions who are currently meeting in Accra, Ghana. Mr. Kufuor said the new transitional government would take over on Oct. 2, around the time that international peacekeepers are expected to arrive to help the West Africans deployed last week.

Taylor's departure means that diplomatic pressure is likely to shift to rebels, who still control Monrovia's strategic port and have yet to allow Nigerian peacekeepers to patrol their part of the city. West African and American diplomats planned to travel to rebel-held Monrovia after Taylor's departure Monday.

Humanitarian organizations need access to the port to bring in vital supplies to feed Monrovia's estimated 1.3 million people, under siege for almost two months. In camps for the displaced, the cry of "I am hungry, give me food," is an almost constant refrain, and people have resorted to foraging for food and killing pet dogs for meat.

The World Food Program had hoped to begin immediately distributing stocks of nearly 10,000 metric tons of food stored at the port as soon as access was regained. But almost all that food as been looted. The organization's warehouse is empty except for a few bags and the shells of trucks bearing the UN logo litter the street.

In the markets on the side of the city held by the rebels, the streets are lined with women selling cups of corn and oil from European Union bags. Stolen food is plentiful and cheap here, while Monrovians across two bridges in government-held territory go hungry.

Rebels, who had promised to withdraw from the port when peacekeepers arrived, later said they would not do so until Taylor left.

A gilded departure

Monday, dignitaries waited for hours in the sweltering, gilded reception room of Liberia's Executive Mansion. As the 11:59 a.m. deadline Mr. Taylor set for his departure passed, a choir dressed in red, white, and blue sang endless hymns to the music of an electric keyboard. But Taylor finally announced his resignation, bathed in the yellow light of three ancient chandeliers that were powered by some of the last fuel in Monrovia.

The former president and his family, accompanied by Kufuor and the president of Mozambique, were expected to fly late Monday to Abuja, Nigeria, where Taylor has accepted asylum.

"History will be kind to me," he said, in a last rambling address as Liberia's president. "I have fulfilled my duties."

The African presidents who attended Blah's inauguration took care to praise Taylor for stepping down, calling him a "patriot". But Taylor himself had harsh words for America and the international community.

Parting words

In a prerecorded address to the nation Sunday, and again in his farewell address Monday, Taylor compared himself to Jesus submitting to the Romans. He called himself a "sacrificial lamb" who was stepping down for the good of the nation and out of love for his people.

Few Liberians heard their former leader's words because of fuel shortages that have left most radio stations without electricity,

"I did not want to leave this country," Taylor said Sunday. "I can say I have been forced by the world's superpower."

Taylor also said he hoped to return one day to Liberia.

Material from the wire services were used in this report.

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