Taylor, ex-leader of Liberia, arrested

Sought for war crimes, he had disappeared

March 30, 2006|By ROBYN DIXON AND HANS NICHOLS | ROBYN DIXON AND HANS NICHOLS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- Unshaven and looking haggard, Africa's most wanted war criminal, former Liberian President Charles Taylor, was placed in a detention cell at the United Nations war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone yesterday after his early-morning arrest while trying to flee Nigeria carrying large bags of cash.

A U.N. helicopter carrying Taylor landed in the compound of the U.N. Special Court in Freetown. Taylor, handcuffed and wearing a bulletproof vest over a white tunic, stepped out and was bundled into a four-wheel-drive vehicle and driven about 100 yards to the door of the detention center.

As he emerged from the helicopter, about two dozen Sierra Leone residents on the roof of a house with a view of the compound cheered.

Inside, away from reporters, a court official read to Taylor the 11-count indictment charging him with war crimes for his role in fomenting war in diamond-rich Sierra Leone, which neighbors Liberia. Taylor is to appear in court soon to enter his plea, but it will be months before the main hearing.

After his arrest, Taylor was flown in a Nigerian government jet to Liberia before the transfer to Sierra Leone. He spent less than half an hour in his homeland yesterday afternoon before being flown to Freetown.

Analysts said his arrest was a boost for West African stability and closes the book on Taylor's malignant influence in Liberia, giving the country a chance to shed its violent history.

Taylor's "presence in the custody of the Special Court sends out a clear message that no matter how rich or powerful or feared people may be, the law is above them," said the court's prosector, Desmond de Silva. He said the reduction of the indictment from 17 to 11 counts did not diminish the gravity of the case.

Taylor, who wore no disguise, was arrested after 5 a.m. in a Land Rover. He was carrying two 10-pound sacks containing various currencies, including U.S. dollars, as he tried to flee across the border from Nigeria into Cameroon, said Nigerian officials in the northeastern state of Borno.

According to reports from the scene, Taylor, traveling in an entourage of several cars, easily passed through the Nigerian customs post but found the gate at the immigration post padlocked. When immigration officials pounced, the other vehicles in the convoy fled, according to reports.

After news of Taylor's escape Tuesday, his arrest a day later saved Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo embarrassment during his meeting with President Bush yesterday.

Liberian Solicitor General Tiawan Gongloe said in a phone interview that Taylor looked grave as the country's director of special services and immigration, Col. Gebah Jabateh, read him his rights on the tarmac in Liberia.

Last week, Liberia's recently elected president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, requested Taylor's extradition, and Nigerian officials announced over the weekend that Liberia was free to come and take him. But Nigeria took no steps to detain him before he fled.

Obasanjo said he felt vindicated by the arrest, adding that there was no negligence by Nigeria.

"If we had been negligent, then Charles Taylor would have got away," he said.

Taylor is suspected of playing a key role in the brutal, interwoven civil wars that raged across West Africa starting in the 1990s.

Robyn Dixon and Hans Nichols write for the Los Angeles Times.

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