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Liberian Interim Leader to Be Inaugurated

October 14, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ Cheering crowds turned out to welcome back Liberia’s interim leader a day before his swearing-in ceremony, packing streets filled just months ago with terrified refugees, dead bodies and the detritus of war.

Gyude Bryant, a longtime civilian campaigner against Liberia’s warlords, was to take the oath of office as chairman of a two-year interim administration to lead Liberia out of 14 years of bloodshed and into elections in 2005. The inauguration was set for late Tuesday morning.

The 54-year-old takes over a nation in ruins, just two months removed from brutal civil war and with thousands of fighters still in arms.

But the only weapons visible in Monrovia were those of U.N. peacekeepers, some of whom escorted Bryant into downtown Monrovia past masses of joyous people singing, ``We love you, O Bryant!″

Liberia has seen a dozen peace deals since former President Charles Taylor launched a civil war in Liberia in 1989. But this time Taylor is in exile, in Nigeria.

``We’re going to have peace. We already have it!″ shouted Susan Kulue. She was among 500 handkerchief-waving women who dressed in white headscarfs and white dresses to greet the new leader.

A Ghanese air force plane brought Bryant to Liberia from the Ghana capital of Accra, site of months of peace talks that engineered the transition government.

Crowds of thousands streamed toward a Monrovia church where Bryant made one of his first stops, joining a prayer service for the bloodied nation.

``I’m overwhelmed,″ said Bryant, taking the microphone at the end of the service to thank the congregation. ``I feel strengthened, and I pray that the energy I saw all of you demonstrate this afternoon when I arrived _ you will join me in using this energy to turn our country around.″

Bryant, whose first name is pronounced JOOD-eh, is to replace Moses Blah, Taylor’s personally chosen successor and former vice president.

Blah took office Aug. 11 as Taylor flew into exile in Nigeria under intense international pressure and after rebels took most of the country.

Bryant was picked to lead Liberia with the approval of rebels and the government, both of whom agreed to yield the top positions in the interim administration. Although he did not flee Liberia during the Taylor years, Monday was his first return to Monrovia since the power-sharing agreement was reached in August.

Liberia, founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century, once was a leading U.S. trading partner and sub-Saharan Africa’s most prosperous country.

Taylor launched the country into war in 1989, at the head of a small insurgency. A seven-year civil war followed that killed at least 150,000 people.

Bryant, a heavy-equipment dealer and leader of a small political party, led a 1997 effort to unite political parties behind a civilian candidate in Liberia’s first elections after the war.

The six-party alliance’s effort failed, and Taylor won the presidency. But fighting continued, and in the 2 1/2 months before Taylor’s exit, sieges in the capital killed more than 1,000 civilians.

On Monday, blue-helmeted U.N. troops in white armored personnel carriers drove through the city before Bryant’s arrival. The peacekeepers were cheered by crowds as they made their way into each neighborhood.

``We want to show the people that we’re here now in Liberia,″ said Lt. Mike Owolabi, a Nigerian U.N. peacekeeper. ``If the population sees us physically, they’ll see that peace is here to stay. It shows a new beginning.″

The United Nations is to deploy up to 15,000 troops by March _ the world’s largest U.N. force.

Referring to Liberians, U.N. envoy Jacques Klein, an American, said, ``It’s now a question of them. Do they want to put this behind them, and move ahead?″

The peacekeepers have been confiscating weapons at roadblocks across Monrovia. Declared an arms-free zone, the city saw even the police chief’s gun taken away over the weekend, Klein said.

Rebel official Mohamed Sherif said Bryant’s biggest job was ``to unify the Liberian people. Because of his neutrality, we think he can do it.″

Sherif spoke with his arm still in a sling from the last rebel-government shootout, Oct. 1, in a crowded Monrovia commercial district. At least two civilians were killed.

On Monday, Monrovians were trying to put aside memories of the fighting.

``Bryant’s a new person and I like him very much,″ said Rebecca Carol, traditional white face paint streaking her cheeks and forehead. ``I’m happy, happy, happy. Today’s a happy day.″