Government, Rebels Pick Interim Leader for Liberia

Liberia's rebels and government chose a gentle-mannered Monrovia (search) businessman seen as neutral Thursday to lead a transition government that aims to guide the country out of 14 years of civil war.

The announcement came at the close of 78-days of landmark peace talks with international mediators.

The chief mediator, retired Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar (search), officially announced selection of Gyude Bryant (search) to oversee the two-year power-sharing accord -- and sent warring parties home with a mandate to support it.

"The first step of unifying the people starts from today," the mediator declared. "Do not let your people down."

Selection of the transitional government's leaders follows Monday's signing of a peace accord, made possible by warlord-president Charles Taylor's Aug. 11 resignation and flight into exile.

As part of the peace accord, Liberia's rebels and government agreed not to vie for the interim government's top posts themselves.

Instead, combatants picked the leaders from a list of nominees submitted by political parties and civic groups, in deliberations that ended only before dawn Thursday.

Bryant, a 54-year-old heavy equipment dealer, was seen as the most neutral of the three final candidates considered for the interim chairmanship.

"I have lived there throughout all these problems, and I see myself as a healer," Bryant, a tall man noted for his calmness, told The Associated Press early Thursday.

He pledged to work closely with the United Nations and other international agencies in the two-year transition government, meant to lead Liberia into elections.

Priorities would include demobilizing fighters, many of them boys, or still-young men who grew up with AK-47s. "We have to disarm these young men, and let them know the war is over," he said.

Others were restoring order, and restoring basic services such as electricity -- knocked out by fighting in 1992, and never repaired.

Combatants picked Wesley Johnson, also a nominee of political parties, as vice chairman.

The interim government is to take power from Taylor's designated successor, former Vice President Moses Blah, in October.

The transitional government itself is to yield to an elected government in 2005.

With Thursday's selection, Abubakar officially closed down the Ghana peace talks.

"Your job is not going to be an easy one," he said.

He urged Liberia's people to support the effort. "You have to play your part. Your country has bled for quite some time now. This is the time to heal the wound.

"We hope never again should such a carnage be visited to your country," the Nigerian said.

Abubakar, Blah, and other West African leaders now will go on a tour of Liberia's neighboring countries, including three -- Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast -- that themselves were embroiled in civil war or threatened with it because of Taylor.

Opened June 4 in Accra, Ghana, the talks brought warring sides together under West African, United Nations, United States and European Union pressure.

Opening ceremonies saw Taylor, his indictment by a U.N.-backed war-crimes court newly announced, go before fellow African leaders in attendance with a contrite pledge to step down.

He hedged on the promise within weeks.

Rebels opened their siege of Liberia's capital by June 6, ultimately helping leave Taylor little choice but to get out.

With fighting persisting despite a June 17 cease-fire, West African leaders last month sent the first of a 3,250-strong peace force. The U.N. Security Council agreed to follow it quickly with a U.N. force.

Two Nigerian battalions, with more than 1,000 troops, have now deployed. Mediators said Thursday that the first troops from another African country, Ghana, will head to Monrovia today.

The United States, which oversaw Liberia's 19th-century founding by freed American slaves, has more than 150 troops on the group. Most are a rapid-reaction force, standing by in case of trouble for the Nigerians.

Taylor, a Libyan-trained guerrilla fighter, plunged once-prosperous Liberia into bloodletting in 1989 at the head of a small insurgency.

The seven-year civil war that followed killed at least 150,000 people.

Taylor won the first post-war elections in a campaign boosted by his charisma and fears that he would revive the war if he lost. Taylor's enemies opened their own uprising in 1999.