MONROVIA, Liberia — In the first nonviolent transfer of power here in 23 years, President Charles Taylor handed over his administration to his vice president Monday and went into exile, raising hopes for peace and stability.
Taylor boarded a jet for Nigeria with his family less than three hours after he surrendered his presidency to Moses Blah. As he stepped into the plane, the former warlord turned and waved a white handkerchief to his supporters, who cried. In rebel-controlled Monrovia, fighters celebrated by firing bullets in the air.
"Today is unique in that it's another step forward, a step that should bring relief to the nation," Taylor told some 300 dignitaries who attended his hand-over ceremony. "I want to be the sacrificial lamb. I am the whipping boy."
The United States and some African countries had demanded that Taylor resign to help end nearly 14 years of war in Liberia.
An hour after Taylor resigned, three U.S. warships carrying 2,300 Marines appeared on the horizon in a show of force. Hundreds of Liberians cheered and ran to the beach to see the ships in the distance. U.S. helicopters buzzed over Monrovia, the country's capital.
"Today marks the end of an era in Liberia," Ghanaian President John Kufuor told the dignitaries. "It is our expectation that from today the war in Liberia has ended and we are ushering in a period of peace."
Blah -- who will lead the nation until October, when a transitional government is to be selected -- sought to reconcile Liberia's torn society. He invited the two rebel factions to join the government.
"There are no winners. We are all losers," Blah said in his inaugural address. "We are all one people irrespective of tribe, religious beliefs and political beliefs. No more shall we fight amongst ourselves."
Many Liberians and Western observers had been skeptical that Taylor would ever step down. For weeks, he had delayed his exit, at times suggesting he would never leave.
His departure could open the way for more American troops to land in Monrovia, which many Liberians think is the best chance for a lasting cease-fire. President Bush has said he would consider sending more troops when Taylor left.
It was unclear what role they would play. One duty could be to secure Monrovia's port, along with West African peacekeepers, and allow humanitarian aid to flow.
Seven Marines are in Liberia as a liaison team with West African peacekeepers. In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said there was no immediate plan to have more go ashore.
U.S., West African and senior rebel officials said Monday that they were close to a deal to release the port to the peacekeepers.
Gen. Joe Wylie, a senior leader of the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, said his group would pull back from the port within a few days.
He added that they would try to work with the new president instead of fighting him, a dramatic reversal. But he stopped short of accepting Blah's invitation to join the government.
Taylor's departure "means the end of the war," Wylie said in a phone interview from Ghana, where peace talks are taking place. "While we agree we don't accept Moses Blah because we see him as a continuation of Taylor, we're not going to put up a fight.
"Now that Taylor is gone, we'll have to look for concessions from whatever is left from the Taylor regime."
Thus ended the rule of a man who launched one of Africa's most brutal guerrilla conflicts on Christmas Eve 1989. An estimated 250,000 civilians were killed over the years. Thousands of child soldiers were recruited, some as young as 5.