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Liberia ex-warlord known for gruesome acts cleared for 2011 presidential bid

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — One of Liberia's most infamous warlords on Wednesday launched his presidential campaign, a race sure to be overshadowed by his reputation for gruesome acts and a government commission's quest to try him for crimes against humanity.

The National Elections Commission said that Prince Johnson's party, the National Union for Democratic Progress, met the constitutional requirements to compete in next year's poll in the West African nation.

Party chairman Emmanuel Lomax praised the party's certification as "the birth of democracy in Liberia."

The warlord-turned-senator is likely to face stiff opposition from President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist who became Africa's first democratically elected female president in 2005.

Johnson is best known for the torture and slaying of ousted president Samuel K. Doe in 1990. A videotape of the event shows Johnson drinking beer as he ordered his men to cut off Doe's ears.

Johnson was overwhelmingly elected in 2005 to the Senate by his native Nimba county for a nine-year term.

Liberia is still tending its wounds after a civil war that had ravaged the country, turned children into cold-blooded killers and was marked by cannibalism. The war ended only seven years ago.

Johnson's presumptive running mate, Senator Abel Massassey, warned that the failure of election officials "to do the right things may plunge Liberia into another round of chaos."

Rights activists have previously criticized Johnson's candidacy; on Wednesday, an activist repeated concerns that his presidency could spark another war. The activist would not give his name.

Tarloh Quinwonkpa, the widow of a general who was killed in a 1985 uprising against Doe, said Johnson's bid was ill-timed.

"I would think Prince Johnson should first try to seek reconciliation with the family of the late Samuel Doe and between the Doe family and the people of his region; it appears it is a bit too early for him to talk about the presidency," she said.

But Nelson Pewu, a newspaper vendor, said: "He's not worse than some of the people we worship around here in key positions."

Liberia's truth and reconciliation commission recommended last year that Johnson and dozens of others be banned for 30 years from holding public office for their alleged roles in the war. Sirleaf was even on that list. She has acknowledged giving up to $10,000 while abroad to then rebel leader Charles Taylor's group, but says it was intended for humanitarian services.

The commission also recommended that Johnson, Taylor and six other former warlords be prosecuted for crimes against humanity in Liberia by a court that has yet to be set up. The commission can only recommend action and lacks authority to issue indictments.

Taylor is currently on trial in the Hague, Netherlands, for crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the war in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Liberia's back-to-back civil wars began with the 1989 invasion by Taylor's rebels against the Doe government. Doe, a former army master sergeant, came to power in a coup in 1981 in which President William Tolbert Jr. was assassinated. Ousted top officials were tied to stakes on the beach and summarily shot.

Johnson was involved in other acts during the country's back-to-back civil wars that lasted until 2003 and killed an estimated 250,000 people in this nation of 3 million.

In 1990, Johnson allegedly executed a Liberian relief worker whom he accused of profiteering from rice sales. A photographer at the scene said the crumpled victim briefly lifted his head and asked "Why, why?" before Johnson finished him off.