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Turmoil in Liberia

July 7, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: For more now on developments in Liberia I’m joined by New York Times correspondent Somini Sengupta. She joins us by telephone from the Liberian capital of Monrovia.

Somini, the big question seems to be what’s going to happen with Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia, who President Bush has asked to leave, where does that stand right now?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: I think only Charles Taylor knows at the moment where that stands right now. He announced yesterday in a very dramatic news conference with the Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, that he had accepted the Nigerian president’s offer of a safe haven in Nigeria.

He did not say when he would step down and go into exile. He said that he would do so only after peacekeeping forces arrived in the country, and he would not do it before peacekeeping forces arrived in the country, because he was afraid that there would be bedlam on the streets.

GWEN IFILL: Kofi Annan said today at the United Nations that his understanding is that Taylor wants 45 days to leave. Have you heard that?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: I haven’t, and I have tried to determine whether he’s ready to leave in one week or two weeks or three months after the arrival of the multi-national force, and he has not specified, certainly not to reporters here. I spoke to him this afternoon in an interview and he did not specify to me, did not answer how quickly he would be willing to step down. He did say that he would do so in the shortest time possible.

GWEN IFILL: When you spoke to him this afternoon, did he give you an understanding of whether he expects accepting this haven in Nigeria that he will no longer be held responsible for war crimes?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: Well, certainly I think President Taylor and his supporters here want very much for the indictment by the special court in Sierra Leone to be lifted. As you know, he is charged with crimes against humanity, with war crimes in a 17-count indictment in connection to his alleged role in that war in neighboring Sierra Leone.

President Taylor believes that it’s a politically-motivated indictment. He does not believe that he has any obligation to appear before a court in a foreign country and stand trial. Meanwhile, the court in Sierra Leone, the prosecutor, who happens to be an American citizen, has said so far at least that he has no intention of dropping that indictment.

GWEN IFILL: President Bush has made it clear that he thinks that Charles Taylor has to leave before anything else happens, and Charles Taylor, in some of his comments seemed to behave as if he is acceding to president bush’s wishes. Did you get that impression in talking to him?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: Absolutely. He’s made it, he’s made it in his comments to reporters he has said he is very pleased with the American interest in his country. He agrees that he should step aside for the sake of peace, and he has been making it very clear that it was his decision to step down, that he’s not being forced by anyone– not least President George Bush — to do so.

Now, it should be pointed out that while President Bush has said that President Taylor, Charles Taylor, should step aside, Mr. Bush has said absolutely nothing about whether he should stand trial in Sierra Leone.

GWEN IFILL: There are polls which show mixed feelings here in the United States about the possibility of American forces arriving in some sort of peacekeeping role. Do you have any sense on the ground there whether that would be welcomed by and large?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: That is presumably something that the military assessment team will have to determine. There was a group of American soldiers who landed today — about 32 people whose mission they say is to do a humanitarian assessment of the humanitarian needs on the ground and not a military assessment. Just my impression — and this is really an anecdotal impression — is that people here, regardless of whether they’re on Mr. Taylor’s side or not, are very, very keen to see an American presence here.

There have been demonstrations outside the U.S. Embassy several times. There have been peace activists here who have been calling for the presence of American peacekeepers, and they point to this country’s historical ties with the United States.

And they also point to what Britain and France have done in their respective colonies and West Africa, Britain of course having been very involved in peacekeeping in Sierra Leone, and France having done the same in Ivory Coast.

GWEN IFILL: Back to Charles Taylor for a moment, there has been some skepticism about his willingness to do what he says, that is to leave as he has apparently promised. What happens if he does leave, that is to say, who is there to succeed him, and what happens if he doesn’t?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: What happens if he does leave, that question remained unanswered. There are peace talks going on in Ghana to determine the composition of a transitional government, but there is no agreement yet on what that transitional government would look like, who would participate, which one of Charles Taylor’s senior officials would remain in power, which ones, if any, of the rebel leaders would be able to share in power in that internal government. On the question of what happens if he doesn’t leave, I don’t think anyone wants to touch that question.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Somini Sengupta, thank you very much and stay safe.