FOR ONCE in the last 10 months, the news out of Liberia is about something other than wholesale slaughter. A cease-fire unilaterally announced last Saturday by rebel leader Charles Taylor is still being observed by chief rival Prince Johnson and his forces. Mr. Taylor and Mr. Johnson have also been invited to hold talks, possibly as early as this weekend, in neighboring Sierra Leone.

These promising developments are no accident. They come as a direct result of Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen's low-keyed and personally risky visit to Liberia last week. His message to all sides was the same: U.S. support for Liberia is conditioned on a cessation of hostilities and creation of a democratic process leading to independently verifiable free and fair elections, and nothing less. The early evidence is that Mr. Johnson and Mr. Taylor got the message. Given the volatility of conditions and personalities in Liberia, even the tentative steps taken since Saturday could collapse on a moment's notice. But after the horrors of recent months, including the grisly accounts of the death of former Liberian president Samuel Doe, the response to the administration's initiative is welcome news.

Taking this to the next stages -- establishment of a broadly based interim government in Monrovia, relief for the refugees and war victims, reconstruction of Liberia, free and fair internationally supervised elections -- will require sacrifice and compromise by all contenders to the presidency. This includes not only Mr. Taylor and Mr. Johnson but also Amos Sawyer's interim government of Liberian clergy, politicians and business leaders formed last month in Gambia under the guidance of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS.

Moving this process forward will be difficult -- suspicion, jealousy and doubt run rampant among the warring factions and what's left of the Doe forces. The task is compounded because the belligerents have given little evidence that they possess the requisite qualities of civility and respect for human life and decency to even make reconciliation a possibility. But there is much more to Liberia than thugs with guns. The overwhelming majority of Liberians do not subscribe to the appalling carnage that has occurred in their country. It is they who deserve the help being provided by ECOWAS, private relief groups and now the United States.