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Liberia's new leader seeks time of peace

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Africa's first elected woman head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was sworn in yesterday as Liberia's new president, promising a ''fundamental break" with the West African nation's violent past and pledging to rebuild.

With US Navy warships offshore for the first time since a civil war ended two years ago, and Laura Bush and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on hand in a show of support, the moment was met with thunderous applause from thousands of guests.

''We know that your vote was a vote for change, a vote for peace, security . . . and we have heard you loudly," Sirleaf, who is 67 years old, said in her inaugural speech. ''We recognize this change is not a change for change's sake, but a fundamental break with the past."

The UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, sent congratulations, saying Sirleaf had a ''historic mandate to lead the nation toward a future of lasting peace and stability."

Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, Liberia was prosperous and peaceful for more than a century, bolstered by abundant timber and diamond wealth. But civil wars from 1989 to 2003 killed 200,000 people and displaced half the nation's population of 3 million.

Liberia is now one of the world's poorest countries, ranked 206th in terms of per-capita income, out of 208 countries on 2004 World Bank list.

Today, not even the capital has running water or electricity. The rich rely on generators; the poor use candles. Unemployment is 80 percent.

''We have all suffered. The individual sense of deprivation is immense," Sirleaf said.

Sirleaf acknowledged that the task of rebuilding would be coupled with high expectations, but she called for patience in accomplishing that goal.

''The task of reconstructing our devastating economy is awesome," she said. ''There will be no quick fix, yet we have the potential to promote a healthy economy in which Liberians and international investors can prosper."

Ensuring Liberia remains peaceful, though, will be Sirleaf's most pressing -- and perhaps most difficult -- task.

George Weah, a former soccer star who lost the November runoff, was backed by most of the country's leaders and faction leaders. He grudgingly accepted defeat and attended the inauguration.

Several lawmakers in the new legislature, including the House speaker, are under a UN travel ban and assets freeze for constituting ''a threat to peace."

One newly appointed senator ordered his troops to hack off the ears of a captured president in 1990. Others are allies of a former warlord and president, Charles Taylor, who was forced from power in 2003 as rebels shelled the capital.

Another crucial task: assuring the future of 100,000 former combatants who laid down arms last year. Many of them are prowling the streets, unemployed.

For now, Sirleaf's government is backed by 15,000 UN troops.

A similar UN force pulled out of neighboring Sierra Leone in the final days of 2005, completing a five-year mission that restored the peace.

Many see Taylor as one of the biggest threats. Exiled to Nigeria, he has been accused by some UN officials of trying to meddle in Liberian affairs.

Taylor is wanted by a UN-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone for his role in fueling that country's civil war, but Nigeria has refused to hand him over.

In an interview aired yesterday by NBC's ''Today" show, Sirleaf suggested that she would like to see Taylor put on trial.

''Mr. Taylor has always said he wanted his day in court to defend himself. We should grant him that privilege," the new president said.

Rice said she was confident that Taylor would be handed over to the Sierra Leone court eventually. He ''is through raping and pillaging this country, and the Liberian people are trying to look forward," Rice told reporters on a flight to Monrovia.

Born in Liberia in 1938, Sirleaf worked her way through college in the United States by mopping floors and waiting on tables.

She graduated with a master's degree in public administration from Harvard in 1971, and took top civic functions in Liberia, including finance minister, and held senior positions at Citibank, the World Bank, and the United Nations.

Twice imprisoned in Liberia in the 1980s for political reasons, she returned in 1997 to run for president. She lost to Taylor, but tried again last fall.

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