Peace in Liberia?


The cease-fire in Liberia, although imperfectly observed for a month, offers hope of returning food distribution and public health services to the capital, Monrovia, where 80 percent of the children are malnourished. It is not clear who won the civil war. The people of Liberia lost.

The cease-fire left the rebel group led by Charles Taylor in control of most of the country, with the greatest claim to a share of power. It left Prince Johnson's rival group dominant in Monrovia, forces loyal to the murdered President Samuel Doe still intact, and the army of five neighboring countries in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) the main check on Mr. Taylor's ambition.

At talks in Banjul, Gambia, before Christmas, the three major Liberian factions agreed to hold a peace conference within 60 days to pick an interim regime. But they deferred all matters of substance. The main concern hanging over Mr. Taylor is the extent of his debt to Libya's Muammar el-Kadafi, who provided him with arms and training. At a time when Chad also has succumbed to a rebel who enjoyed Mr. Kadafi's aid, the on-again, off-again specter of Libyan subversion in Africa is on-again.

These doubts do not justify reopening Liberia's civil war. Mr. Taylor is unlikely to be worse for his country than the revolutionary despot he deposed, Samuel Doe, who was killed by Prince Johnson's men. Now is the time for full distribution of food and aid under United Nations and other auspices.

The United States, with its historic ties and recent military cooperation with Liberia, has a major obligation to provide humanitarian aid and reconstruction. It can also help ensure that Mr. Taylor lives up to his past promises. The first should be an interim coalition government as broadly encompassing of political movements and ethnic groups as possible.

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