(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Abuja talks urge cease-fire between government and rebels

Rival Liberian groups which met in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, to prepare grounds for national reconciliation called on Saturday for a cease-fire in the fighting between President Charles Taylor's government and the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD).

In a communiqué issued at the end of the two-day meeting, they expressed regret at the absence of Taylor and LURD's representatives at the talks held under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and urged future meetings to include all stakeholders.

"'There should be a cease-fire between the government of Liberia and LURD," the communiqué said. Other requirements for peace included guaranteeing security and the rule of law for all citizens, and creating an environment favourable for free elections in 2003.

Top political and civil society leaders from within and outside the country, and a government delegation led by the Minister of Agriculture, Rowland Massaquoi, attended and agreed on the need for dialogue and reconciliation "to overcome the devastations of many years of civil war". But they found common grounds on little else.

While the government delegation centred on the need to "reconnect, dialogue, reconcile, harmonise and close ranks to enable the country overcome the effects of years of civil war", the opposition insisted government meet its demands to make peace possible.

A separate document tabled at the talks and signed by 29 leaders of political and civil society groups, including former presidents Amos Sawyer and Ruth Perry, former rebel leader Alhaji Kromah and opposition politician Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, raised what they considered key issues "that must be addressed for effective reconciliation".

These included "the deployment of an international stabilisation force; the restructuring of the national military and paramilitary forces; and the creation of mechanisms to halt the culture of impunity". They also wanted the Liberian electoral commission reconstituted "to ensure balance and impartiality" and offer citizens "unhampered participation in the political process as a peaceful alternative to armed struggle".

The 29 leaders appealed to ECOWAS chairman President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal and the facilitator of the talks, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria to convene another meeting urgently to which both Taylor and the LURD rebels should be prevailed upon to attend " to halt the destruction, displacement and the flight of the citizens into neighbouring countries" .

Taylor will be hard-pressed to accept most of these demands. But he has proposed a national reconciliation meeting in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, in July, to be preceded by similar preparatory talks in Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire and the United States.

But most of Taylor's exiled opponents believe it would be unsafe to go to the Liberian capital. Kromah, who has often been linked to LURD rebels, said Monrovia would be unsafe for him. He denied any association with LURD but said they had his sympathies.

He expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the Abuja meeting which he said was meant to lay a basis for the process of reconciliation. "It is not a preparation for the meeting in Liberia but a preparation for the national reconciliation process," he said.

Key participants at the talks, including Kromah, said they were pleased with the progress made. Former foreign minister and leader of the United People's Party, Gabriel Bacus-Mathews, said the meeting allowed the articulation of differing views. "I am hopeful if these views are taken into consideration in subsequent meetings, it will help towards ensuring lasting peace in Liberia," he told IRIN.

Massaquoi, the government representative, while insisting that Taylor had done a lot to ensure peace, told IRIN the meeting was "an opportunity to hear divergent views which will help us ensure peace in our country".

West African leaders consider peace in Liberia important in ending conflict in the Mano River countries (Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone), that has threatened the stability of the entire region over the past decade. A seven-year insurgency began by Taylor in ended in 1996 after peace brokered by ECOWAS led to elections which he won a year later.

The conflict, however, spread into neighbouring Sierra Leone, where the Foday Sankoh-led Revolutionary United Front (RUF), affiliated to Taylor, waged a 10-year civil war against successive governments. The civil war was officially declared ended in January following a peace process supervised by the United Nations. The fighting also spilled into Guinea, where the authorities accused Liberia of sponsoring rebels in cross border raids aimed at toppling the government of Lansana Conte.

The latest significant moves towards peace in the subregion followed a February meeting in Fez, Morocco, where Taylor, Conte and Sierra Leone's Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, agreed to work for peace in their countries.

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