President Charles Taylor said on Friday he would bow to US demands that he step down from power and leave Liberia, but only after a US-led peacekeeping force arrived in the war-torn country.
Demonstrators took to the streets of the capital Monrovia for the second day running to demand that Taylor quit immediately. Soldiers opened fire on the group of more than 500 protestors, wounding one of them, but they continued their march on the US embassy, chanting "Taylor kingdom must come down. Satan Taylor must go."
The embattled president told Church leaders at a meeting in the Executive Mansion that he wanted international peacekeepers to arrive in Liberia before he left to allow for "a smooth transition of power".
The Church leaders had presented him with a statement calling for peace in Liberia, which has suffered near constant civil war for the past 14 years.
"It makes a lot of sense for peacekeepers to arrive in this city before I transit. I am not fighting to stay in power," Taylor said. "What I am fighting for right now is that there be a normal transition so that anger, frustration, deceit and other things don't creep in."
Taylor, a former warlord who was elected president in 1997, went on: "I cannot understand why the US government will insist that I be absent before its soldiers arrive in Liberia. I have no hatred for Americans. My grandfather was from America. I will welcome and embrace the presence of American soldiers."
Washington was widely expected to announce this weekend that it would send 500-1,000 troops to Liberia from its forces in Europe. But diplomats said Taylor's refusal to step down, despite an offer by Nigeria to provide a safe haven for him, was delaying a US decision.
Nigerian government officials told IRIN that President Olusegun Obasanjo had offered Taylor temporary refuge in Nigeria, to give him time to find another country of exile.
The Libyan state news agency Jana said Obasanjo had discussed the situation in Liberia by telephone with the Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi. Libya provided military training for Taylor and his supporters before they launched a rebellion in 1989 that eventually brought them to power. It has been touted by diplomats as a possible country of permanent exile for the Liberian leader.
Obasanjo's spokeswoman, Remi Oyo, told IRIN that Obasanjo talked to Taylor by telephone on Friday, but the finer points of his terms of exile were still being thrashed out.
"He is not coming immediately, but there is the possibility he might come soon," she said, adding that Taylor might not leave Monrovia before Monday.
A Nigerian foreign ministry source said: "Discussions on Taylor's asylum in Nigeria have not been concluded. A number of proposals are still being considered between Taylor and Abuja, including how long Taylor might have to stay in Nigeria.".
One of the church leaders who met Taylor told IRIN: "He said he is ready to quit as soon as possible. But on condition that the peacekeepers are here."
Taylor told the meeting that if he departed unceremoniously, rebels of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), who launched two attacks on the capital last month, government soldiers, and Taylor's own political supporters could wreak havoc in Monrovia.
Commenting on US President George Bush's demand for him to leave Liberia, Taylor said: "If God wants me to leave this country in the future, there is nothing anyone can do about it". Officials told IRIN that the Liberian leader had held consultations with his most trusted senior officials and fighters on Bush's demand.
On Thursday Bush repeated his demand that Taylor leave the country, telling reporters in Washington: "There's no question that step one of any effective policy, whether we are involved or not, is for Charles Taylor to leave. Taylor must go. A condition for any progress in Liberia is his removal -- him removing himself."
The leader of a UN Security Council team touring West Africa, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the UK ambassador to the United Nations, said in Sierra Leone on Thursday that the situation in Liberia was "extremely nasty and fragile".
"We can’t trust the ceasefire to hold unless there is an early political agreement on what to do next," Greenstock said. "Virtually everybody wants Taylor to leave, even the government of Liberia seems to recognise that its just a question of arrangements and timing and what happens next."
Greenstock added that while all of this was going on, "the condition of the people of Liberia is very unpleasant and we want to get humanitarian agencies back into Liberia to look after the people and to bring supplies."
The Liberian government signed a ceasefire agreement with LURD and another rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) at peace talks in the Ghanaian capital Accra on 17 June. But fighting flared up again after Taylor backtracked on a promise to step down and LURD launched a fresh assault on Monrovia, whose one million inhabitants are running short of food and clean drinking water.
LURD retreated a week ago, since when the guns have been silent. The peace talks in Accra were due to reconvene on Friday.
Taylor has been indicted by a UN-backed Special Court for war crimes committed when he backed rebels during Sierra Leone's 1991-2001 civil war. He has also been accused of stirring up conflict in Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire.
Taylor said on Friday: "If I am the reason for the conflict in Liberia, I will step down. I see myself now as the facilitator of peace. I'm not fighting to stay in power, what I'm fighting for now is that there will be a normal transition, that anger, frustration and other things don't creep in."
The embattled Liberian leader had demanded that the indictment for war crimes be lifted before he steps down. President John Kufuor of Ghana appealed to the UN to lift the indictment.
But Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on Friday for it to be upheld.
"If U.S. troops are sent to Liberia, they should not make any deals that involve a withdrawal of the indictment...Letting Taylor off the hook would make it harder, not easier, to bring lasting peace to Liberia," Janet Fleischman, Washington Director for Africa at HRW said in a statement.
"Instead, we should look at how we can build on Taylor’s indictment to ensure accountability for all those responsible for war crimes in Liberia," Fleischman said. "All parties involved in the Liberia peace talks must respect the Sierra Leone Special Court. Taylor should be handed over to the court to face trial."