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Liberian Summit Cancelled After Groups Fail to Show

By Cindy Shiner
Special to The Washington Post
ACCRA, Ghana

A West African summit conference aimed at halting factional warfare in Liberia was called off here Wednesday when seven of nine regional leaders failed to attend. Foreign ministers of the nine nations used the occasion instead to call on Liberia's rival militia groups to adhere to a peace accord they signed last August or face withdrawal of a regional peacekeeping force from the country within two months.

Only Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings and Sierra Leonean President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah showed up for the conference, which some officials involved said reflected regional exhaustion over attempts to end a six-year-old Liberian civil war that has claimed more than 150,000 lives. A dozen peace accords have fallen apart, and the 8,000-member West African peacekeeping force that has trying to stanch the fighting since 1990 has been rendered virtually powerless by a month of fierce factional combat in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, and by a lack of resources.

"It's a disappointment, yes, certainly," Anthony Nyaki, the U.N. special representative to Liberia, said of the latest peace effort. "But work has been done. Those of us in Monrovia will need to be pushing. No cease-fire (can hold) without pushing."

In any case, the prospects of a successful summit were shaky from the moment it was proposed last week, when the leaders of Liberia's two largest factions-Charles Taylor and Alhaji Kromah, both members of an interim governing council created under last year's peace accord-declared that they would not attend.

A third faction leader, Roosevelt Johnson, whose militia forces have been battling those of Taylor and Kromah in Monrovia since early April, protested that he was not allowed to address the assembled foreign ministers. Johnson has been in Accra since last week, when he was flown out of Monrovia aboard a U.S. aircraft in the hope this would contribute to a compromise truce.

The foreign ministers of the nine nations appealed urgently to Liberia's faction leaders and the interim council to end the fighting and called for the withdrawal of militia groups from Monrovia, the return of vehicles stolen by the warring parties from international aid groups and the surrender of heavy weapons seized from the peacekeeping force.

Another West African summit is scheduled for July, at which regional leaders will decide whether the peacekeeping force should be withdrawn. "Few of us are prepared to continue to spend time and resources for conferences on the same problem over and over again," said Rawlings, who is chairman of the the 16-nation Economic Community of West African States. He said the peacekeeping effort - the only one of its kind in the world - is "at a crossroads."

Officials of the nine nations represented here called on the international community to help fund the peacekeeping force so that it can deploy throughout Liberia and disarm the country's estimated 60,000 militiamen as called for under the August agreement. Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa and the leader of the peacekeeping force, has spent more than a half-billion dollars on the effort, while the United States has contributed more than $75 million.

U.S. officials have pledged an additional $30 million, provided the peacekeepers demonstrate effectiveness in implementing the 1995 accord. "It's like the chicken and the egg," one African diplomat said.

A key problem with U.S. funding, however, stems from Washington's rocky relationship with Nigeria's military rulers. Congress is reluctant to release the funds while sanctions bar military assistance to that country. Waivers must be issued, the last of which took six weeks to gain final approval. The United States has long had close ties with Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves in 1847, and the Clinton administration sent special envoy Dane Smith to the conference.

Another problem with the peacekeepers' level of effectiveness is that they have become so embroiled in the conflict that many Liberians blame them in part for the recent renewal of full-scale fighting in Monrovia. They accuse the Nigerian commanders of giving Taylor and Kromah - once bitter rivals, but now allies against Johnson - the go-ahead to attack Johnson's forces because his militiamen had killed a number of peacekeeping troops and stolen their weapons.