Q&A: Liberia's conflict

© BBC International

Why is there fighting in Liberia?

Africa's oldest republic was founded by freed American slaves, but in the past couple of decades has been in an almost continuous state of civil war. President Charles Taylor himself led an armed rebellion during the 1980s and 1990s, before he won elections in 1997.

He has also been accused of destabilising neighbouring countries, especially Sierra Leone where he was said to have profited massively from supporting rebels operating in diamond mining areas.

However, thanks to the world's largest international peacekeeping operation, the fighting is now over in Sierra Leone, and one of Mr Taylor's main revenue sources has dried up.

Accused of operating like a warlord, he has also alienated political opponents and whole ethnic groups within the country.

Fighters of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd) rebels, initially operating from bases in Guinea, have gradually gained more and more territory in the north and west.

A more recently formed group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (Model), has gained control of strategic areas in the south and east cutting off income from the government's latest source of revenue - timber.

Starved of funds to pay troops still loyal to him, President Taylor has also found himself increasingly isolated by international sanctions.

So Charles Taylor's days are numbered then?

It is starting to look that way. Calls for him to step down have been coming in thick and fast and fighting has now reached the outskirts of Monrovia.

If that wasn't enough, he survived two moves against him last week.

Whilst in Ghana last week for the opening of peace talks, an arrest warrant was issued by the UN-backed war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone for his alleged support of rebel groups there.

Fortunately for Mr Taylor, this was not acted upon by the Ghanaians, allowing him to race home.

Then despite denials from those accused, on his return to Monrovia President Taylor announced that a coup attempt had been foiled involving his vice president, senior officials and US diplomats whilst he was away.

Does he have any friends left?

Well, the army chief refused to support the coup attempt, according to Mr Taylor.

On the international front, the US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher recently described him as a "destructive force" and UN figures like the head of the UN refugee agency have called on him to go.

There is no love lost with Mr Taylor's closest neighbours, Guinea and Ivory Coast, where accusations and counter-accusations have flown of involvement in each other's conflicts.

And even Ghanaians, who refused to arrest him on their soil, after inviting him for peace talks, may have run out of patience.

It is thought that the foreign minister is considering flying to Monrovia in the coming days on behalf of regional leaders to ask Mr Taylor to step down.

Their attempts to get peace talks up and running have been overshadowed - first by the arrest warrant issued and then by the fighting around Monrovia.

So does Liberia matter?

Stability in Liberia is vital to its neighbours, not least to Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, which have also found themselves caught up in the fighting in recent years.

Critics say the departure of Charles Taylor will lead to greater peace and prosperity in the sub-region and thus allow the whole of West Africa to get back to concentrating on economic development rather than solving conflicts.

However, a rebel takeover in Monrovia would not necessarily end the fighting, which Liberians have endured for so long.

It could just be another step in a long civil war.

Tuesday, 10 June, 2003, 15:34 GMT 16:34 UK

added by: Robert W. Kranz  10-06-2003