THE BURNED-OUT,boarded-up Liberian Embassy chancery on upper 16th Street in Northwest Washington stands as a silent symbol of the eight-month trashing of that West African nation by three warring factions whose behavior resembles less that of military combatants and more that of gangs.

One group is led by the current president Samuel Kenyon Doe -- aka Sgt. Doe -- whose reputation for corruption, mismanagement and human rights abuses is well known and unchallenged. A second -- the National Patriotic Front -- is commanded by Charles Taylor, a former official in the Doe camp, who is the subject of an outstanding warrant for having escaped from a Massachusetts jail where he was awaiting extradition to Liberia to face embezzlement charges. The third force -- the Independent National Patriotic Front -- is headed by Prince Johnson, a former Taylor loyalist who was photographed recently in the act of shooting dead an unarmed civilian in cold blood.

The three of them spout patriotic rhetoric, but their fight is mainly over the spoils of war, and thanks to them the pickings are slim. Sgt. Doe, once ruler of all he could convey -- which meant just about the country's entire treasury -- now controls the mansion on the palace grounds where he is holed up, and not much else. Mr. Taylor has laid claim to the rest of Liberia except for most of downtown Monrovia and the local port, which are in the domain of Mr. Johnson. Together, the three and their loutish followers have managed to ransack the nation, kill more than 5,000 people, mostly civilians, leave thousands more starving in their wake and at the same time, internationalize the conflict by scattering 400,000 Liberian refugees throughout neighboring nations.

As of yesterday afternoon, surrogates for the three, along with representatives of Liberia's existing political parties and a Liberian interfaith mediating group, were scheduled to attend peace talks on Monday in the Gambian capital of Banjul. Gambia's president was to personally preside over the talks in his capacity as chairman of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, which, again as of yesterday afternoon, had a 3,000-strong multilateral peacekeeping force reportedly beginning to disembark at the port of Monrovia.

Much rides on the success of the ECOWAS undertakings in Liberia and in Gambia. In both places, ECOWAS's objectives are straightforward, but by no means easy to achieve. In Liberia, they seek to bring about a cease-fire and a halt to the killings. This objective has been threatened by Mr. Taylor, who announced that he would attack the multilateral force out of fear that the nations participating in it really want to keep Sgt. Doe in office. The outcome of any talks that may take place in Banjul are even more chancy. Winning a formal cease-fire agreement and then establishing an interim government -- without Messrs. Doe, Taylor or Johnson -- and running internationally supervised elections are formidable tasks. But the alternative of continued plundering and murder is worse.

The West African states are properly in the first line of the diplomacy being considered to end Liberia's misery. The United States is in the second line but, even at that, it is having a strangely difficult time finding a voice and lending a hand. Its hesitation has created unnecessary doubts about just how serious is its support of the rescue of a longtime friendly and dependent state.