Resignation of Liberian president opens cracks in rebel groups' unity


MONROVIA, Liberia - The day after President Charles Taylor left the country, one group of his rebel enemies agreed to a U.S. proposal to open up the vital Free Port of Monrovia as another fought anew against government soldiers in the southeast.

Yesterday's developments brought home the difficulties of ushering in peace in Liberia, let alone a degree of normality for this destitute country. It also raised the specter of disagreement between the two rebel factions now that their common enemy has left.

Squeezed by an arms embargo, a war crimes indictment and relentless rebel attacks, Taylor resigned and went into exile in Nigeria on Monday. Taylor, who had been a rebel leader for seven years before becoming president in 1997, handed power to his longtime ally and vice president, Moses Z. Blah.

Blah has extended an olive branch to the insurgents, inviting them to join his administration; an interim government is to take over in October. Both rebel groups fighting for Taylor's ouster oppose Blah's leadership, calling him too close to Taylor to be credible.

But yesterday, the leadership of the two rebel movements went their separate ways. The Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, which occupies at least half the capital, agreed in the afternoon to release the Free Port of Monrovia and quit the city by noon tomorrow. By holding the port, the rebels have effectively choked the food and fuel supply to the rest of Monrovia.

U.S. Ambassador John W. Blaney said West African peacekeepers would first deploy across the city. The first troops of what is to be a 3,250-strong force are on the ground, but they have not started patrolling in any significant numbers.

Meanwhile, southeast of the capital, the other rebel faction, calling itself the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, clashed with government forces, advancing to within 15 miles of the main airport.

A contingent of Nigerian peacekeepers based at the airport mobilized toward the east yesterday morning to try to head off the rebels' advance.

Liberia's defense minister, Daniel Chea, urged West African peacekeepers to move in and stop the fighting. "There is no reason for this," Chea said, according to Reuters. "Taylor has left; that's what they wanted. Their agenda just seems to be total annihilation of the Liberian people."

A spokesman for the rebel faction, known as Model, blamed the government loyalists for starting the fighting.

"I do not agree that the war is over," the rebel spokesman, Gen. Boi Bleaju Boi, said. "The government elements who have been causing trouble are still in place. They are attacking us."

Officials from the peacekeeping force said they hoped to get permission from rebels to enter the port to the north of the city and begin opening it to shipments, especially much-needed relief supplies, including food, medicine and potable water.

A rebel official also told reporters yesterday that the insurgency wanted to head an interim government.

"We were responsible for the downfall of Charles Taylor," the rebel official, Sekou Fofana, said. "We want to serve in the highest capacity. That means we can be president of the interim government."

Three U.S. warships, carrying 2,300 Marines, remained offshore yesterday within sight of the capital's beleaguered population. The White House has said it is prepared to help bolster peace efforts and facilitate aid to Liberia, but it has not said it will commit ground troops.

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