Up to the last moment many Liberians could hardly believe it was true.
But after six years of destructive rule, Charles Taylor surrendered power to his deputy, Moses Blah, at his executive mansion yesterday and flew into exile abroad.
Almost immediately, the momentum for a peaceful solution to Liberia's war started to spin faster. Three US warships sailed before the shores of Monrovia, causing joyful residents to flood onto the city's rubbish-strewn beaches to watch them pass. Two large helicopters rose from the ships and swept into the heavily fortified embassy compound. An embassy official said they were on a resupply mission.
A Ghanaian diplomat said the US had agreed to send marines to help secure the city port, which will be vital to humanitarian efforts, perhaps as early as today. A spokesman for the US embassy said rebels controlling the port had agreed to allow humanitarian access. He could not comment on any US involvement.
A crowd gathers on the beach to observe one of three U.S. warships visible offshore from the Liberian capital Monrovia Monday, Aug. 11, 2003. Liberian President Charles Taylor officially handed over the power of the presidency to his Vice President Moses Blah, at the Executive Mansion Monday. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Nigerian peace-keeping troops started to fan out across government-controlled Monrovia, taking control of checkpoints usually manned by Mr Taylor's unruly fighters.
One senior rebel official said Mr Taylor's departure meant "the war was over". "Once he leaves Liberia today we are not going to fight. The suffering of Liberians is over," said Sekou Fofana of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd).
Mr Taylor, dressed in a white suit with a green sash, relinquished his presidency at a somber ceremony in the executive mansion's gaudy parlor room. Four African heads of state, including Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and African Union chairman Joaquim Chissano flew in to ensure his departure.
As ever, Mr Taylor blamed his downfall on foreign enemies, using the language of martyrdom and elaborate African imagery. "I want to be the sacrificial lamb," he said. "If Charles Taylor is the problem, I will be out of here in the twinkle of an eye." Employing a farmyard parable, Mr Taylor described himself as the "black cow" who had been ravaged by the lion, taken to signify the US.
The American evangelist KA Paul delivered a sermon before the handover of power, hailing Mr Taylor for leaving as promised. In a bizarre moment, he laid his hands on the assembled African presidents, urging them to cry with him for peace.
Mr Blah, also a former bush fighter, was sworn in as President immediately after the speech. He challenged rebel groups holding three-quarters of Liberia to talk. "You have no further excuse not to join the peace wagon," he said.
Mr Taylor, who was elected President in 1997, clung to threadbare vestiges of his democracy during the long, heated ceremony. Seated on a plush velvet throne under a large chandelier, he hectored outside powers for having "usurped" the constitution of Liberia. "Africans need to take care of their own problems," he said.
But on the real legacy of his rule lay outside, where hungry Liberians wandered the debris-strewn, bullet-pocked streets without electricity or running water.
Most people said they were delighted to see him go. "His time in power was baseless. Nothing was achieved," said Kenny Weah, a 21-year-old former fighter with Mr Taylor's Small Boys Unit. "I just want to see him go."
But peace is far from certain. The Lurd leadership has yet to react to Mr Taylor's departure, and have threatened to attack Mr Blah, whom they deride as a Taylor stooge.
There are also jitters about how Mr Taylor's notoriously rag-tag teenage soldiers will react to his departure. Gunfire rang out near the city center as soldiers smashed into shops for some last-minute looting.
Alex Vines of the Royal Institute of International Affairs said: "The immediate worry of course is the vacuum. Will the militia groups recognize Blah's authority and will the peacekeepers also have the capacity and will to deal with problems?"
Amnesty International pointed out that Nigeria, which has offered exile to Mr Taylor, is bound under international law to surrender the indicted outgoing president to the war crimes in Sierra Leone, where he is accused of taking diamonds in return for arming rebels notorious for their brutality. "We hope he won't escape justice," said a spokeswoman, Lesley Warner.
Around 800 Nigerian peacekeepers have deployed in Liberia, the forward force of a 3,250-strong West African mission. But many Liberian hopes lie with the as-yet unclear US intervention.
"As long as they are here things will be all right. At least the suffering will be over," said Josephine Mbayo, a 23-year-old university student, as she watched the passing US warships from a Monrovia beach.
"You know we love them," added Oretha Myers. "Now they have to love us too."
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd