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Monday, July 26, 1999 Published at 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK

World: Africa

Taylor: 'New era for Liberia'

UN and west African military observers watch over the operation

By BBC West Africa Correspondent Mark Doyle in Monrovia

Liberian President Charles Taylor has announced that his country has "closed a dark chapter" in its history after almost a decade of civil war.

Mr Taylor was speaking at a United Nations-monitored ceremony to mark the destruction of tens of thousands of weapons and millions of rounds of ammunition collected from armed factions at the end of the main hostilities in the civil war three years ago.

The destruction of the large cache of weapons - held under lock and key since the war - is one of the largest weapons destruction programmes the world has seen in recent years.

Several African heads of state attended the ceremony, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent a message congratulating regional leaders on taking an important step towards peace.

[ image: Charles Taylor: Wants to be seen as a man of peace]
Charles Taylor: Wants to be seen as a man of peace
The presidents of Sierra Leone and Nigeria - two countries that used to be firmly opposed to Mr Taylor - arrived in Monrovia on its Independence Day for the colourful ceremony.

President Taylor came to office by being the most powerful warlord in a conflict which destabilised the entire west African region, leaving hundreds of thousands of people dead.

Now - elected to office and keen to portray himself as a man of peace - he hopes that putting a lighted torch to the huge pile of weapons will send a message to the outside world.

[ image: Sites in Monrovia and Tubmanburg are being used for the destruction of weapons]
Sites in Monrovia and Tubmanburg are being used for the destruction of weapons
Essentially, Mr Taylor wants respect - and crucial foreign investment.

With peace deals now signed in Liberia and neighbouring Sierra Leone, it is just possible that this will happen.

But Mr Taylor's opponents - many of them in exile or otherwise silenced - say he has to show a greater and continuing commitment to democracy and human rights if Liberia is really to become a normal country once more.

Peacekeepers to leave soon

Nigeria's General Felix Mujakperou, who has headed the Ecomog peace enforcement army in West Africa, told the BBC that the weapons destruction programme was "a mess", and several weeks behind schedule.

Gen Mujakperou said his peacekeeping troops, who have been guarding the surrendered weapons, would leave Liberia within days in accordance with a long-term plan.

The general, who has intimate knowledge of the situation in Liberia, warned that the unarmed UN monitors were incapable of protecting those weapons not yet destroyed from possible seizure by armed groups which might want them.

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