MONROVIA, LIBERIA — MONROVIA, Liberia - Bowing to pressure from West African leaders, beleaguered Liberian President Charles Taylor pledged yesterday to resign Aug. 11 but refused to say when he would leave his war-ravaged nation.
As government fighters and rebels continued their battle for this capital city's port and certain strategic bridges, Taylor said at a news conference at his plush Atlantic Ocean mansion that he would cede power during a joint session of Liberia's congress next week and that "the new guy will be sworn in by midday." But he stopped short of offering any date for going into exile.
"The most important thing is, everything that we have said about resigning and leaving will happen," said Taylor, who has been promising to leave Liberia since June 4, when a United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal in neighboring Sierra Leone indicted him for his support of the now-ended bloody civil war there.
Taylor has said he will hand power to his vice president, Moses Blah, whom he recently accused of complicity in a coup and then seemingly vindicated, or to Nyundueh Monkomana, Liberia's speaker of the House.
Analysts expressed hope that the 14-year conflict that has engulfed this West African nation, which was founded by freed American slaves, had entered its last stretch.
"This is the final lap in terms of dealing with Taylor's departure and then beginning the difficult task of putting the pieces back together," said Comfort Ero, West Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution think tank. She spoke by telephone from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
The Liberian president has accepted an offer of asylum in Nigeria, but aides close to Taylor indicated yesterday that he might stay in Liberia for quite a while longer. They continue to insist that his term in office actually lasts until January.
"If he relinquishes power, that is the most important thing," Taylor's spokesman, Vaanii Passawe, said in an interview. "He is leaving power. But leaving the country in the face of the indictment particularly, that is not reasonable."
Blah, the vice president, said Taylor's departure depended on the war crimes indictment being quashed and an adequate number of peacekeepers on the ground.
Taylor's announcement that he would step down came after two hours of talks with West African senior officials, who had initially demanded that he resign three days after tomorrow's scheduled arrival of regional peacekeepers in Liberia.
But one envoy praised Taylor's agreement to resign, saying this was more important than the actual date.
"He is to be congratulated for his sense of statesmanship and patriotism, recognizing the realities and the fact that his departure will facilitate the making of peace in Liberia," Nana Akufo-Addo, Ghana's foreign minister, told reporters.
West African leaders have pledged to deploy at least 300 Nigerian forces to Liberia tomorrow. They will be followed shortly thereafter by troops from Ghana, Senegal and Mali. It was unclear whether U.S. Marines on three warships en route to Liberia's coast would go ashore upon arrival this week.
Traveling to Texas with President Bush, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday that the administration is waiting for the situation in Liberia to stabilize.
"Charles Taylor needs to leave, and we need to see it in his actions, not only words," McClellan said.
Meanwhile yesterday, driving rain failed to curtail heavy fighting at Monrovia's port, where rebels are battling to cross bridges toward downtown and into the heart of Taylor's government. Black smoke billowed from buildings in what for the past 13 days has been rebel-held territory. War-weary residents were again sent scrambling for cover.
Intense gunfire left at least 70 government soldiers wounded - the highest toll in several days of fighting - according to medical staff at Monrovia's main hospital, where most of the injured were taken in cars and on the backs of pickup trucks.
Despite the heavy losses, some government soldiers said they were determined to beat the rebels back.
"I'm still fighting," said 17-year-old Gerald Kealie, who lost a leg in battle last year but demonstrated how he could fire a gun by steadying himself with a crutch and using his other arm to hoist his weapon. "I'm fighting for my country. After peacekeepers get here, we will stop."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Times photographer Carolyn Cole in Monrovia and staff writer Vicki Kemper in Crawford, Texas, contributed to this report.