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Charles Taylor draws flak over farcical conference

Emmanuel Goujon

An open-ended peace conference launched by Liberian President Charles Taylor to end a long civil war has been derided by civic groups and the opposition as a badly organised and futile project.

An open-ended peace conference launched by Liberian President Charles Taylor to end a long civil war has been derided by civic groups and the opposition as a badly organised and futile project.

Although the conference was launched amid great fanfare last Friday, the venue—a giant conference centre in the Monrovia suburb of Virginia—is empty or almost, with the talks going on in a desultory and aimless manner.

The 500-odd delegates present appear to be loyal backers of Taylor’s regime, widely criticised for human rights violations. The talks have been boycotted by the opposition, Taylor’s foes

and the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd) rebel group fighting to oust the former warlord who had played a bloody role in an earlier seven-year-long civil war.

Taylor opened the talks last week by calling upon the rebels “to lay down their arms and channel their grievances through the political process,” promising that there would be “no reprisals, no paybacks, no get even with.”

But peace prospects have been dimmed by ongoing fighting for control of the key provincial town of Tubmanburg, 60 kilometres north of the capital Monrovia, which was recently re-taken by government troops.

Lurd forces say they are changing tack to regain control of the town.

Liberia has been wracked by a bitter civil war launched by the Lurd in 1999. The government has stepped up military operations against the rebels since May.

Taylor announced a state of emergency in February, after a rebel advance brought the Lurd to the doorstep of the Liberian capital.

Taylor has blamed unnamed neighbouring countries for allegedly harbouring and backing the rebels, and Western nations for putting his country under an arms embargo while fighting is raging.

Opposition veteran Togba Nah Tipoteh, the founder of an umbrella grouping comprising 14 of Liberia’s 17 opposition parties, said the timing of the conference was way too early.

“People are not interested in a reconciliation conference when hostilities are still taking place,” he said. “There is a problem of confidence.”

He said both sides were equally to blame for this, saying “Lurd has no democratic tradition” and underlined that Taylor “really wants the chaos to continue because he knows he cannot deliver.”

David Kiazolu, general secretary of the powerful Inter-Religious Council of Liberia grouping of Christian and Muslim associations which is desperately trying to broker peace, was also guarded about the prospects of a breakthrough.

“The gesture could be a way forward, but people are

apprehensive. Who are the parties to this conference?

It should not be only the citizenry of Liberia.”

He said it was imperative for the Lurd and the opposition to be a part of the talks.

In Abidjan, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who was runner up to Taylor in the last presidential elections, said Taylor “cannot appeal for peace and reconciliation while committing terrible human rights violations at the same time.” - Sapa-AFP

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