Five top members of the ruling People's Redemption Council were executed by firing squad here this morning in what was seen as the climactic end to a power struggle among the 17 soldiers who took control of the government in a bloody coup last year.
The five formed the core of the left-leaning resistance to many of the pro-Western decisions taken by Liberia's military head of state, Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe.
The five were charged with an assassination and countercoup plot against Doe's government, but no evidence of a conspiracy was produced publicly during their hasty, three-day military trial.
The speed and secrecy of the trial left an uneasy fear hanging over Monrovia. Liberians who until recently felt safe openly discussing their disagreements with Doe's government now do so only privately at prearranged meetings at out-of-the-way locations.
The alleged plot was first reported Monday in a radio broadcast by Doe. It was the third reported coup attempt against the 16-month-old government. In the first alleged plot, nine military men arrested two months after the original 1980 coup reportedly have been jailed for life.
In May, the government denounced a second plot involving 13 soldiers, who were secretly executed in early June after closed trials.
The latest plot allegedly was led by Liberia's former deputy head of state and cochairman of the ruling council, Maj. Gen. Thomas Weh-Syen, an outspoken critic of some of Doe's policies, including the closure last spring of Libya's diplomatic mission and the forced reduction of the Soviet Embassy staff from 15 to six.
The men executed today were also known to have criticized what they perceived as the Doe government's "errand boy" relationship with the United States. Besides Weh-Syen, 29, they were Lt. Col. Nelson Toe, at 22 the youngest member of the council; Lt. Col. Harry Johnson, 30; Maj. Henry Zuo, 28, and Lt. Col. Robert Sumo.
All were members of the original group of 17 noncommissioned officers and privates who overthrew the government of William R. Tolbert April 12, 1980, ending a century and a half of dominance in the country by Americo-Liberians -- the descendants of American blacks who founded Liberia in the early 19th century.
One knowledgeable Liberian said that without the five members who were executed, the ruling council "no longer has any backbone" to oppose actions by Doe.
Doe announced Monday that the plotters, led by "my dear friend, Thomas Weh-Syen," had planned to kill him and three other high officials. He said the assassinations were scheduled to take place Sunday afternoon and that several civilians also were involved.
But Army security forces arrested Weh-Syen late Sunday night when he was returning from an all-day soccer match in the interior of Bassa country, a two-hour drive from Monrovia.
The announcement Thursday night that the men had been sentenced to die took the country by surprise. The accused had been promised defense lawyers, which they were not given, and many people thought the sessions from Monday to Wednesday were only pretrial hearings.
As they were led past crowds gathered outside the Temple of Justice, where the trials were held, the men exhibited confidence that they would be acquitted. The generally unpopular Weh-Syen was jeered by the crowds when he declared he had "never plotted to kill Doe." He later told reporters to "tell the world" that "if I die, I die for nothing."
The events since Monday's announcement of the alleged plot included a bizarre ceremony Wednesday in downtown Monrovia's executive pavilion involving about 2,000 appointed county officials and tribal chiefs from all over Liberia. The ceremony represented a throwback to the public oaths of support demanded under former Liberian leader William Tubman and his successor Tolbert, killed in the coup last year.
Given in Doe's honor, the celebration had been scheduled before the announcement of coup plot.
In a speech reminiscent of Americo-Liberian politicians of the past, Doe clearly signaled the response he desired from the crowd.
"Today I want to hear from all of you, our fathers," he told them. "What should we do to these people who want to kill us?"
According to people who listened to the event on the radio, Bong County Superintendent Gbardeh Zaza set the tone by shouting, "No mercy. Kill them if they are guilty."