THE OVERTHROW and slaying of President Samuel K. Doe underscores the mob rule that dominates Liberia today. Sgt. Doe himself came to power 10 years ago through the use of unrestrained cruelty. But the bloodiness of that coup in 1980 does not justify the reported attack on him and his entourage by the forces led by rival Prince Johnson in the headquarters of the West African task force in Monrovia on Sunday.

The major authority figures in Liberia have now increased from the original rival trio of the late Mr. Doe, Prince Johnson and rebel leader Charles Taylor to include three others: Brig. Gen. David Nimley, commander of Sgt. Doe's presidential guard, now holed up in the late president's mansion; Lt. Gen. Arnold Quainoo, commander of the 4,000-member peace-keeping force of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); and Amos Sawyer, a well-known Liberian political figure who was selected to serve as president of an interim Liberian government at the national unity conference in Gambia last month. But the chief rivals for dominance of Liberia -- and the sources of the blazing guns -- remain the Taylor and Johnson forces and what's left of Sgt. Doe's presidential guard.

The task that got underway in Gambia last month and that continues now is to bring about a cease-fire, form support for an interim government and get the country on the path toward reconciliation and free and fair elections. This means that all parties need to understand and ultimately accept the realities of Liberia's situation and use the window of opportunity that appears to be opened with Sgt. Doe's departure.

For Charles Taylor, who claims military control over most of the country, this would mean understanding that should he prevail over the Liberian people through force of arms and continued mayhem, he might end up presiding over a vanquished nation and a marginal regime bereft of any respect in the world and beyond external aid. It is in his and Prince Johnson's interest to reach an accommodation with a broadly based interim government that would allow them to have a voice and a role in their country's future.

Consultations are now going on in the ECOWAS countries to develop support for the interim government as well as to bring all major Liberian interests back to the table. This undertaking by ECOWAS remains as risky and formidable as its first steps in August. But what choice remains? Some 40 percent of the Liberian population -- one million people -- have been displaced or made refugees by this fratricidal war. No fewer than 400,000 people have been scattered to neighboring nations. Babies and children are starving, and not a single medical facility is operating in the capital. But the alternative -- withdrawing and letting Liberians fight it out -- is unworthy. The West African states and Liberia's oldest friend, the United States, should see that that does not happen.