Charles Taylor tries to negotiate his exit strategy

President Charles Taylor said he is ready to step down “in a jiffy”—but only after an international stabilisation force arrives to ensure an orderly transition in this war-divided country.

Taylor’s comments came after a team of US military civil affairs experts arrived in Liberia to help assess whether to contribute to such a force.

Taylor, beset by rebels and indicted by a UN-backed war crimes court, insisted on “avoiding an unceremonious departure” in order to prevent “chaos and anarchy.”

“If one US marine stood on Broad Street and blew a whistle, ‘time out,’ then there would be peace,” Taylor said, referring to Monrovia’s main commercial thoroughfare. “When they arrive, bingo. There’s an exit.

I would be out of here in a jiffy,” he said.

The United States faces mounting international pressure to intervene in Liberia, founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century and a major recipient of US aid until the late 1980s.

“They owe it to us,” Taylor said.

However, in another interview, he specified: “My departure depends on the presence of an international force, not the presence or absence of the Americans.”

Taylor has repeatedly promised—and failed—to step down. On Sunday, he accepted an offer of asylum from Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo—but did not specify when he would leave.

He appeared calm and confident on Monday, speaking expansively in an anteroom of his plush executive mansion, where the carpet was emblazoned with the motto: “The love of liberty brought us here.”

He insisted that he alone would decide on the timing of his withdrawal from power and criticised US President George Bush for continuing to press for his resignation after he promised last month to step down.

Bush has insisted on Taylor’s resignation as a condition for US intervention.

“I said that for the sake of peace I will step down from office ... It was not President Bush who made the (initial) call,” he said. “Bush was late on this matter.”

However, he said US troops would be welcome in Liberia, and need not fear a repeat of the military operation in Somalia that eventually killed 18 Americans.

“Liberia is American territory. Young Liberian women will put flowers in their path,” he said. “Not one Liberian would even take a pistol against an American.”

Bush, who is embarking on a five-nation African trip, is scheduled to arrive on Tuesday in Senegal, one largely peaceful West African nation that hasn’t seen the ill effects of years of warring by Taylor, a former warlord long accused of sowing strife in the region by aiding rebel groups.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday welcomed Taylor’s decision to resign and leave Liberia. “The secretary-general sees this development as a significant turning point as Liberia strives to move from war to peace,” said a statement issued by Annan’s spokesperson.

The United Nations and European leaders have sought US troops to enforce an oft-violated June 17 cease-fire between forces loyal to Taylor and rebels fighting for three years to oust him. West African nations have offered 3 000 troops and have suggested that the United States contribute another 2 000.

White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer said on Monday that Taylor’s promise to leave “remains encouraging” but that he must act on his words “so that stability can be achieved.”

Two helicopters brought a team of American military experts, some wearing armor and some carrying assault weapons, to the US Embassy compound in Liberia on Monday.

US Navy Capt. Roger Coldiron, who heads the 32-person team, told reporters that his mission was to “assess the security environment” in the country and study the humanitarian needs of its 3 million people—suffering greatly from more than a decade of civil strife.

“There is a security component,” Coldiron said. “We want to be sure that whomever comes in is safe on the ground.”

Taylor emerged from the last conflict as the strongest warlord and was elected president the following year.

He has been accused of supporting Sierra Leone’s brutal Revolutionary United Front rebels, whose trademark atrocity was amputating the arms and facial features of their civilian victims with machetes.

Nearly one third of Liberia’s three million people have been forced from their homes by fighting since rebels took up arms against Taylor in 1999.

When he resigns, Taylor said he planned to “rest and write.” But he said he would stay involved in his political party—and would not rule out the possibility of a political comeback. - Sapa-AP

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