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Nigerian Leader Says He Won't Turn Taylor Over for Trial

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 6, 2005; Page A20

President Bush and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo met at the White House yesterday where they discussed the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan, the high price of oil and a way to bring to justice Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president accused of war crimes and now living in exile in Nigeria.

Obasanjo, speaking after the meeting in an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors, said, "I don't believe anybody who has committed a crime should get away with it." He said, however, he would not turn Taylor over to a United Nations-sponsored court in Sierra Leone, where Taylor has been indicted for crimes against humanity, unless there is "absolute . . . evidence" that Taylor has violated the asylum agreement. Absent that, Obasanjo said, he would turn Taylor over if asked to do so by the Liberian government.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo after visiting Bush.

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"Nothing should be done to erode the credibility of Nigeria," Obasanjo said, explaining that he consulted widely with other nations before granting political asylum to Taylor. If he reneges on the asylum agreement, Obasanjo said, "nobody will respect us."

Taylor has been indicted on 17 counts of war crimes against humanity for his role in the war in Sierra Leone.

In 2003, as part of an internationally brokered deal, Obasanjo offered Taylor political asylum so long as Taylor refrained from any further crimes. At the time, Bush and many other world leaders praised the move.

Subsequently, however, Taylor has been accused of violating his asylum deal by plotting the attempted assassination of the president of Guinea earlier this year, and meddling in the campaign leading up to this fall's presidential elections in Liberia. Obasanjo said those allegations have not been proved.

Bush administration officials acknowledged the sensitivity of the Taylor situation, saying the asylum agreement helped bring a fragile peace to Liberia and neighboring West African nations that had been embroiled in brutal wars for 15 years.

"The president appreciates President Obasanjo's leadership in helping to bring an end to the civil war and to get Charles Taylor out of Liberia," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. Nonetheless, he said, "they talked about a way to hold Charles Taylor accountable."

During the 45-minute meeting, Obasanjo also updated Bush on African Union peacekeeping efforts in Sudan's Darfur region, where hundreds of thousands of people have died in two years of fighting that Bush has labeled a "genocide." The African Union, which Obasanjo chairs, has decided to double the number of troops in the region and is seeking NATO help in deploying the new peacekeepers.

"The president thanked him for his strong leadership in Darfur and talked about the importance of resolving the situation in Sudan," McClellan said.

Bush and Obasanjo also discussed oil prices, which have doubled over the past two years. Obasanjo said he agreed with Bush that oil prices are too high. He said it was in the interest of large oil-producing and oil-consuming nations that prices be more moderate. Nigeria is the world's seventh-largest oil producer, pumping 2.5 million barrels a day.

Obasanjo said he also raised the question of debt relief for Nigeria with Bush, asking him to "use his good offices" to press the issue with his European counterparts.

Earlier in the day, Obasanjo met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with whom he said he discussed many of the same issues, including the Taylor situation.

"I think that we and the Nigerians both agree that he should not be interfering in any way in Liberia's internal affairs, and to undermine democracy there, and that he should face justice," State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said.

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