MONROVIA, Liberia -- The wife of the leader of Liberia's most powerful rebel movement announced yesterday she was taking charge, backed by dozens of guerrilla commanders in ousting a husband whose ambitions she said were endangering the nation's hard-won peace.
In a family feud with West Africa's stability in the balance, warlord Sekou Conneh frantically took to state radio to insist it was only a marital squabble and he was still in command.
But Asha Keita-Conneh declared she was the "double boss," of her husband and the movement.
"I put him there. If you open a big business and you put your husband in charge, if you see that things are not going the right way, you set him aside and straighten things up," Keita-Conneh said as her baby daughter -- who she is still nursing -- lay beside her on a bed in the family home.
Keita-Conneh promised she would put Liberia's 6-month-old peace process on track. "I will never agree for anybody to fight in this country again," she said.
Around her, fighters of the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy movement nodded assent. Dignitaries streamed in for consultations.
Unless rapidly resolved, the dispute threatens to destabilize Liberia, where a UN force of 15,000 is backing a power-sharing government after 14 years of civil war that killed a quarter-million people.
Peace came to Liberia in August, when warlord President Charles Taylor fled into exile as the rebels laid siege to his capital and international peacekeepers moved in. The risk is that a lasting rift between loyalists of rebel husband and rebel wife could revive factional fighting.
Divided, fighters weighed their allegiance yesterday. "This lady can lead," declared one insurgent, Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Kanneh.
"Women can lead better than men in many ways, but the situation in LURD is quite different," said Marie Johnson, a 26-year-old resident of Monrovia, where thousands were killed by rebel and government mortars and rockets just months ago.
"Sanity needs to be restored to the organization," she said. "This does not auger well for the peace process."
Ambassador Kwame Amoa-Awua of Ghana and other diplomats shuttled between the two camps, hoping "to iron out whatever differences," Amoa-Awua said. "Whatever happens in LURD is of great significance to the peace process, because LURD is a major actor."
Keita-Conneh's claim to control had a measure of credibility, despite the rarity of a woman leading an armed guerrilla movement with thousands of fighters.
She has long been seen as a power behind the rebel movement, with her influence coming from her alleged position as spiritual adviser to President Lansana Conte of neighboring Guinea.
Keita-Conneh is widely said to have won the Guinea leader's loyalty with her correct prediction of a 1996 mutiny against Conte, which he withstood.
In gratitude, the Guinean president made her his adopted daughter.
Later, in the 1990s, Conte is alleged to have funded and armed the LURD uprising in anger at Taylor's armed incursions into Guinea.
When the group launched its insurgency in 1999, Keita-Conneh's husband, a little-known former used-car salesman, emerged as the movement's leader.
Under Liberia's interim power-sharing deal, Conneh and other leaders on all sides in the war are prohibited from holding high office.
In recent weeks, Conneh has openly chafed at the restriction, complaining of having no job and accusing the current power-sharing government of bad faith.
The peace process has not run smoothly under Conneh's LURD. LURD was the last of Liberia's three armed factions -- two rebel movements, and Taylor's former government -- to allow deployment of UN forces in a stronghold town. Noncompliance from LURD also contributed to the breakdown of UN-sponsored disarmament nationwide, due to resume in stages this week.
In recent days, a number of top rebel officials broke with Conneh, circulating a statement declaring his wife as their new leader.
It was unclear yesterday who held greater support among the rebels, and impossible to tell who had the upper hand. Husband and wife both claimed it.
"I am chairman, even if there was a problem between me and my wife, it has been resolved and I am the chairman," Conneh told state radio.
"I see myself as a mother, a mother of all the factions," Keita-Conneh said. "Believe me, if I tell the children to bring in their arms, they will bring all, and I will turn them in."
Disputes over policy within the rebel movement had strained the couple's marriage, she said, while her husband's hopes to become Liberia's president had led him to challenge the peace process.