Waiting For The Fall

The rebels of Liberia's National Patriotic Front were determined to capture or kill President Samuel K. Doe last week, even if they had to put a city of 500,000 people under siege. The rebels cut off Monrovia's water and electricity and severed communications to the outside world. Hungry citizens foraged for leaves and roots. One man with bullet wounds bled for four hours as government soldiers ignored his pleas and turned to looting and stealing cars instead. On one morning alone, some 17 corpses were discovered around the capital. As rebel artillery boomed, Doe hid in the executive mansion where his predecessor was killed 10 years ago.

Doe's back was to the Atlantic Ocean, where a U.S. Navy task force with 2,300 Marines waited. They were there to evacuate about 800 Americans from Monrovia if necessary. They also awaited possible orders to take Doe away to exile. The dictator's departure might provide a slim chance to reduce the bloodshed. But with Doe refusing U.S. evacuation offers, that chance seemed doubly remote. Diplomatic sources in neighboring Abidjan say Doe has requested instead that the United States escort him to his home region. Washington reportedly said no.

Doe says he'll step down only if there are no rebel reprisals against either himself or his Krahn tribesmen, a hard demand to meet now that Liberia's rebellion has degenerated into ethnic warfare. Liberians fear a tribal bloodbath if the rebels, led by a former Doe administration official, Charles Taylor, have to fight their way through the city to get to Doe. Doe's Krahn soldiers have slaughtered hundreds of Gio and Mano, who support the rebels. Rebels have killed Krahn civilians and Mandingos, whom they consider Doe supporters.

The strife may not end even if the rebels do take Doe's mansion. No one knows whether Taylor can control his troops, or whet kind of personal ambitions and tribal hatreds will be loosed if the insurgents take power. A breakaway group has already battled with Taylor's main force. "Because of all the rifts and differences, Liberia could be plunged into civil battles for a long time," says Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a leader of Liberian exiles in the United States. Taylor's latest plan is to form a 24-member National Patriotic Reconstruction Assembly, led by Taylor but including some members of the existing cabinet and local representatives. Within six months, internationally observed elections would be held. It sounds promising, but many Liberians suspect Taylor would rig the campaign. Only a few months ago, Taylor said that elections might be held in five years, but he was not sure he would relinquish the top post.

Taylor may already be heading down the same authoritarian path traveled by Doe himself, who consistently ignored the pleas and criticisms of his own people. Two weeks ago thousands took to the streets waving palm fronds and demanding that Doe resign. But Doe, who had pledged to make "any sacrifice" to bring peace to his country, paid no heed. It will probably be the last of his many broken promises.