MONROVIA, Liberia - Charles Taylor, an indicted war-crimes suspect and one-time warlord, resigned yesterday as Liberia's president and went into exile, raising hopes for an end to the West African nation's violent rebellion.
Waving a white handkerchief to onlookers and accompanied by his wife, two children and several close aides, Taylor boarded a chartered jet bound for Nigeria, which had offered him asylum. Many of his supporters who gathered at the airport wept as Taylor flew off after ceding power to his vice president, Moses Blah.
His departure coincided with a brief appearance of three U.S. warships carrying more than 2,000 Marines off this capital city's shoreline. It was unclear whether the troops would come ashore, and the vessels eventually withdrew farther out into the Atlantic.
Taylor's exit marks a promising step toward ending 14 years of conflict that has devastated this country, settled by freed American slaves in the 19th century. The test now will be whether the international community, led by peacekeepers from West African nations with the backing of the United States, will help impose a cease-fire and forge a lasting stability.
Monrovia's hotly contested port, the corridor for badly needed humanitarian supplies, is still in rebel hands. And there remain many challenges - such as demobilizing rebel fighters, re-integrating them into society, rebuilding infrastructure and restoring basic services.
In neighboring Sierra Leone, where the United Nations took charge after a recently ended civil war, the experiment of placing a troubled nation under virtual international receivership appears to have brought some progress. Many here want their country to become just such a protectorate.
Speaking at a resignation ceremony inside a velvet-draped hall in Monrovia's Executive Mansion, Taylor described himself as a "sacrificial lamb" and a "whipping boy." He repeated comments made previously that his departure was necessary in order for Liberia to have peace.
"Today is unique in that we take another step forward - a step that should bring relief to the people of this nation," Taylor said, addressing about 300 local and foreign dignitaries, including legislators and Western diplomats.
He vowed: "I will be back."
Taylor is accused of fueling conflict across neighboring West African states and has been indicted by an U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone, where he allegedly sponsored a rebel movement whose calling card was hacking off the limbs of civilians. His government also was accused of smuggling diamonds and arms; it was slapped with an international embargo.
Officials from the rebel movement Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, LURD, whose recent two-month assault on the capital has contributed to the deaths of more than 1,000 people and displaced thousands more, said they welcomed Taylor's exit.
"This is a very big step toward peace in our country," said Gen. Joe Wylie, a military adviser for LURD. "Taylor was a very negative character in Liberian politics. We are happy. We consider this to be a major victory."
Taylor was pressured to resign by the Bush administration and West African leaders.
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the commander of U.S. troops off Liberia would go ashore as early as today to discuss with Nigerian peacekeepers and international aid workers the steps needed to open Monrovia's port to aid shipments.
The vanguard of a West African peacekeeping force that is expected to grow to 3,250 soldiers has already brought a measure of stability to the capital. Nigerian soldiers have replaced members of Taylor's largely undisciplined militias at some checkpoints in the city.
Washington had made Taylor's departure from Liberia a condition for helping the country. Last week, a team of seven Marines went ashore to the headquarters of the multinational West African peacekeeping force in Monrovia to help coordinate logistics support. A few other U.S. troops are in the capital to bolster security at the U.S. Embassy.
U.S. officials differed yesterday on whether Taylor's departure made it more likely that President Bush will send a U.S. peacekeeping contingent.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the mission of the U.S. forces remained as described by Bush on July 25: to support West African peacekeeping forces. He said the president had not decided how to do that.
At the resignation ceremony in Monrovia, a gospel choir serenaded the guests, many of whom arrived at the mansion by 9 a.m. and waited for hours in a sweltering hall.
Taylor had pledged to cede power to Blah at one minute before noon but was delayed at the airport where he welcomed leaders from South Africa, Togo, Ghana and Mozambique, all of whom attended the gathering.
South African President Thabo Mbeki confirmed that his nation would contribute troops to the West African peacekeeping force.
Wearing a white safari suit and carrying his trademark staff, Taylor looked unemotional as Blah was sworn in. The vice president pledged to "faithfully, conscientiously and impartially discharge the duties and functions of the Republic of Liberia."
After requesting a moment of silence for the casualties of Liberia's war, Blah called for healing and reconciliation among all the nation's people.
"There are no winners," he said. "We are all losers."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.