January 15, 2006

U.S. signals backing as Liberia leader takes office

By Alphonso Toweh

MONROVIA (Reuters) - Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is
sworn in as Africa's first elected female president on Monday
in the presence of U.S. first lady Laura Bush and watched over
by two American warships heading a big security operation.

The high-level U.S. delegation, which also includes
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, signals strong support
from Washington for the Harvard-trained economist who has
promised to lead the war-scarred West African state to a better

Johnson-Sirleaf, a 67-year-old former finance minister,
beat soccer millionaire George Weah in a November run-off poll.

Liberians, weary of their country's recent history of
conflict, chaos and destruction, have high expectations both
for the new president they call "Mama Ellen" and for the
superpower across the Atlantic they look upon as a kind of

Africa's oldest independent republic was founded by freed
American slaves in 1847 and U.S.-Liberian links still run deep.

"I want the U.S. to help with reconstruction of this
country because we have been in darkness for over 15 years ...
America has a moral responsibility to this country," street
salesman Ben Sckor-Age, 39, told Reuters.

U.S. officials say Washington spent more than $840 million
last year on Liberia as it emerged from a brutal civil war that
ended in 2003 after killing 250,000 people and leaving the
country's infrastructure in ruins. They say helping the country
is a priority of President George W. Bush's administration.

But ordinary Liberians want to see even more U.S. aid to
restore crippled electricity and water systems, repair ruined
hospitals and schools, train judges and a new national army.

"America must help build our country because Liberia is an
offspring of America ... If they fail to help this new
government and this country, God will hold them accountable,"
said Victory Sieah, a 46-year-old mother of two children.

Two American warships, the USS Mount Whitney and USS Carr,
will be standing guard off the Monrovia coastline while Laura
Bush, Rice and a bevy of African presidents and other
international dignitaries attend the inauguration ceremony.

U.S. secret service agents are mingling with U.N.
peacekeeping troops in the ramshackle capital Monrovia, where
rubbish has been cleared, bullet-scarred walls painted over and
new trees planted in a major face-lift operation.


China, which is already competing with the United States to
tap West Africa's rich oil resources, is also angling for good
ties with Johnson-Sirleaf's Liberia.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, who is on a tour of
six African states, met the Liberian president-elect in
Monrovia on Sunday on the eve of her inauguration.

"We have identical positions on many important issues, such
as reform of the United Nations," Li told reporters.

He offered Liberia Chinese assistance with infrastructure,
building of stadiums, agriculture, minerals and youth training.

Analysts say Johnson-Sirleaf's vows to fight corruption and
keep the peace could founder unless international donors like
the United States make good on promises to deliver aid.

"They must now put money on the table," the International
Crisis Group said in a report on Friday.

"If Johnson-Sirleaf is not helped to solidify her
administration in the next months, there will be opportunities
for detractors, ex-combatants and other spoilers to try their
luck with new violence," the Brussels-based think tank said.

(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld)