MONROVIA, Liberia – Charles Taylor (search), the warlord who brought 14 years of death and destruction to Liberia (search), yielded the presidency Monday under pressure from rebels, the United States and West African neighbors -- but not before vowing, "I will be back."
Taylor surrendered power to his vice president as rebels lay siege to the capital, and then flew into exile in Nigeria.
Three U.S. warships briefly hove into view off Monrovia within minutes of Taylor's ceding power to his vice president, Moses Blah (search). In Denver, President Bush called Taylor's exile "an important step" but gave no hint whether it moved him closer toward deploying more U.S. troops to assist with peacekeeping or humanitarian relief efforts.
"It is an important step toward a better future for the Liberian people," Bush said.
Hundreds of Liberians, thin and ragged, lined their country's rock-lined shores, exclaiming and hugging at a dramatic day they prayed would mark a turning point for their country.
"From now on, everything is going to be all right," said 25-year-old Ansu Outland.
"Peace! Peace!" others shouted in the jostling crowds, under eyes of government fighters armed with AK-47s.
Taylor flew to Abuja, the Nigerian capital, within three hours of resigning as president. Rebels have seized most of Liberia in their three-year campaign to depose Taylor.
Family, friends and a small lingering cadre of supporters cried and wailed at Liberia's main airport as Taylor climbed the stairs of a jet provided by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo (search).
At the top, the 54-year-old Taylor turned and raised a white handkerchief to wave at the crowd. Security forces brusquely hustled him inside before he completed the gesture.
With Taylor out of sight, the South African, Ghanaian and Mozambican presidents who came to escort him into exile lingered on the tarmac for their own, red-carpet send-off from Liberia's new president, Blah.
Taylor, a Liberian-born, Boston-educated business student who trained in guerrilla fighting in Libya, faces a U.N.-backed war-crimes indictment for his trafficking with a vicious rebel movement in neighboring Sierra Leone.
Standing U.N. sanctions against him and dozens of associates accuse him of diamond- and arms-trafficking with insurgents in much of West Africa.
On Monday, Taylor mentioned returning to Liberia despite admitted fears of assassination and the war crimes court's international arrest warrant.
Fellow West African leaders lauded Taylor for yielding power. The sweaty, crowded handoff ceremony featured Blah and Taylor under generator-lit chandeliers, run by scrounged fuel in a war-battered city that has been without electricity for years.
"It is our estimation that today, the war in Liberia has ended," declared President John Kufuor of Ghana, who with Obasanjo and South African President Thabo Mbeki was instrumental in coaxing Taylor into exile.
Mbeki newly pledged South Africa's well-armed, highly trained soldiers for the 3,250-strong peace force for Liberia.
"It is indeed shameful that as Africans we have killed ourselves for such a long time," Mbeki said. "It is indeed time that this war should come to an end."
In Accra, Ghana, site of off-and-on peace talks, rebel leader Sekou Conneh agreed.
"The war is over," he said. "I'm happy and I know everybody is happy."
The United States, which oversaw Liberia's founding by freed slaves in the 19th century, has provided some logistical support and funding to the West African peace mission.
"The United States will work with the Liberian people and the international community to achieve a lasting peace after a decade of suffering," Bush said.
Bush also thanked the leaders of several Liberian neighbors, including South Africa, Mozambique and Nigeria, which has readied a three-building compound in a ritzy neighborhood of the southeastern city of Calabar for Taylor and his family.
"Their continued leadership will be needed in the weeks and months ahead," Bush said.
Nigerian security forces say privately they will monitor Taylor to keep him from continuing as Liberia's power-broker from exile.
Obasanjo welcomed Taylor at the international airport in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. The two leaders shook hands and embraced before walking down a red carpet together to the presidential lounge.
"Here was a man who decided to make a sacrifice, believing that sacrifice would bring his country peace," Obasanjo said.
"We will endeavor to be good hosts while they are here. And I hope the world will give them time to settle down."
Taylor, dressed all in white and smiling as he descended from the plane, did not address reporters.
At Monday's handover ceremony in Monrovia, Taylor, in a white safari suit, sat side-by-side with Blah, in flowing white traditional robes. Both men were enthroned in oversized velvet-and-geared chairs in an executive mansion chamber reinforced against assassination attempts.
Taylor's exit was unbowed.
"History will be kind to me. I have fulfilled my duties," he said, relaxed and smiling in a hymn- and prayer-filled ceremony that seemed part send-off, part revival, with the Liberian leader stopping once to compliment himself for being such a good speaker.
He repeated much of his farewell address recorded Sunday night -- but unheard by Liberians until Monday morning, with radio stations off the air for days because of the lack of fuel and food in the government-held part of the capital.
Accusing the United States anew of forcing him out, Taylor showed nothing suggesting repentance for launching once-prosperous Liberia into bloodshed in 1989, when as a rebel he led a small insurgency to topple then-President Samuel Doe.
"I have accepted this role as the sacrificial lamb ... I am the whipping boy," Taylor said.
His parting words appeared to startle the crowd: "God willing, I will be back," he said, drawing murmurs rather than the heavy applause that Kufuor's declaration of peace received.
Taylor stood squarely behind Blah in the swearing-in ceremony that followed, with Blah placing his left hand on the Bible as he took the oath of office.
Blah himself is to hand over power in October to a transition government meant to lead Liberia into elections, Kufuor said.
Blah told CNN on Monday that Taylor will hold no sway over his government while in exile.
"He is gone. He would not interfere with the day-to-day activities of the Liberian government," Blah said. "I am a truly independent president."
In government-held Monrovia, hungry families scouring markets for food were "happy for that man to go."
"I've got no way to live now," said Mercy Clalabah, who lost his mother, father, a sister and three nieces and nephews when a mortar slammed into refugees who sought shelter near the U.S. Embassy last month.
She and others upended baskets and shopping bags to show what they found to eat: Nothing.
Rebels have pledged to open Monrovia's port for aid and food when West African peacekeepers are ready to deploy there, and after Taylor departed.
In his CNN interview, Blah appealed to the U.S. Marines offshore: "Please come to Liberia and save us because we are dying. We are hungry."
The three U.S. warships that moved within sight of shore Monday were the USS Iwo Jima, the USS Carter Hall and the USS Nashville, with 2,300 Marines and 2,500 sailors aboard. The ships have been within 100 miles of Liberia for more than a week. U.S. officials had said they were awaiting for the right moment before bringing them into sight.
Mist-shrouded hulks, they moved back out of view within an hour Monday.