West African Leaders Pledge Peace Force, Taylor's Departure

West African leaders committed Thursday to deploy the first peace troops to warring Liberia by the start of next week, and said President Charles Taylor would go into exile three days later.

The leaders, meeting in Ghana (search), agreed to send a vanguard of 1,500 peacekeepers, expected to be two battalions from Nigeria. Ghana, Mali, Benin, Senegal and Togo also have promised 3,250 soldiers for an eventual 5,000-strong force.

The pledge came as pressure grew on regional leaders to speed a peace force promised since rebels opened two months of bloody siege on Liberia's capital in early June.

Aid groups say more than 1,000 civilians have been killed and tens of thousands driven from their homes by the fighting, which has cut off food and clean water to the city of more than 1.3 million. Medical workers appealed to both sides to open an immediate aid corridor to the rebel-held port, which contains aid and commercial warehouses.

Taylor, a wanted U.N. war-crimes suspect for his backing of rebels in the neighboring nation of Sierra Leone, has said in recent weeks that he would yield power as soon as peace troops arrive.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas (search), executive secretary of the West African leaders' bloc, said the vanguard force would provide the "appropriate conditions for the handover of power, and departure from Liberia, of President Charles Taylor."

In a statement, the leaders said "it was agreed" that Taylor would hand over power to a successor and accept an offer of exile in Nigeria within three days of the troops' arrival.

It was not clear whether Taylor himself had agreed to the West African leaders' announcement. Liberian officials in Monrovia could not immediately be reached for comment.

A former warlord, Taylor presided over 14 years of near perpetual conflict in Liberia, once one of West Africa's most prosperous nations. He has pledged in the past to step down, only to hedge on his promise or renege completely.

For weeks, West African leaders have vowed to send peacekeepers to Liberia's capital, where rebels are pressing a 3-year-old war to oust the president. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Wednesday had urged the regional leaders to commit to a date for deployment.

Taylor has said he will step down once international peacekeepers arrive in Liberia.

While it will provide the advance force, debt-plagued Nigeria has asked the United States and others for more help paying what is expected to be a multimillion-dollar daily tab.

The United States, which oversaw the founding of Liberia by freed American slaves in the 19th century, has promised $10 million and is sending three warships with Marines to Liberia for what President Bush says will be limited assistance. The ships were within two days of Liberia.

Bush has insisted that U.S. troops will not be deployed until Taylor steps down and a cease-fire is in place.

U.S. officials introduced a draft measure at the United Nations on Wednesday asking for approval of a multinational force, to be followed by a U.N. deployment by Oct. 1.

In Monrovia, tens of thousands of Liberians emerged from hiding places Thursday to welcome a West African-U.S. advance team they hoped signaled the imminent arrival of peacekeepers.

People in Liberia's capital passed one of the quietest nights in the last two months of rebel offensives against government forces. Gunfire rattled, but there was some relief from the rocket and mortar volleys of recent days, allowing starving families to scurry out in search of food.

The advance team of 10 West African and U.S. officials, which is led by a Nigerian commander and has one American, set off jubilant celebrations in Monrovia as it passed shacks with tin roofs peeled back by explosives. Unexploded shells laid in the streets.

"This is a sign of peace coming," refugee Hamilton Woods said with a smile.

As the advance team arrived at the high-walled, heavily guarded U.S. Embassy, hundreds of refugees taking shelter around the compound spilled out, fluttering handkerchiefs and flashing peace signs while shouting with joy.

"We are hungry, but seeing these people we are full this morning," businessman Mohammed Dauda, 31, said. "We hope this marks the beginning of the end."

The advance inspection team, led by Nigerian Brig. Gen. Festus Okonkwo, was meeting government ministers and U.S. officials Thursday in the battered capital. Some tasks scheduled for the next two days include determining where the peace force will live and how much fuel is available for it.

Any initial deployment would be limited to the capital, authorities said.

Moses Togbah, who is blind, pleaded with the advance force to stay, fearing a return to warfare.

"I don't want them to just leave. Do not leave us struggling," said Togbah, using his cane to help him and his small daughter navigate down the street. "People are dying."

The smaller of Liberia's two main rebel groups, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, declared Thursday that peacekeepers were welcome in its area — joining Liberia's government and the leading insurgent group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, in insisting the foreign deployment would be greeted warmly.

"We are very elated to have the first wave," Liberian Defense Minister Daniel Chea said at the southeastern port of Buchanan, where his forces were pressing a three-day attempt to retake the city, which was captured by rebels Monday.

"We see it as a very, very good thing. Their arrival here is long overdue."

Chea claimed heavy battles in Buchanan on Thursday while rebels said Liberia's second-largest city was quiet and in their control.