Liberia's Taylor Found and Arrested

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 30, 2006

MONROVIA, Liberia, March 29 -- On a rain-drenched tarmac, former Liberian president Charles Taylor was arrested by U.N. security officials Wednesday, read his rights, placed in manacles and then flown by helicopter to neighboring Sierra Leone to face charges of crimes against humanity.

So ended, for now anyway, the political career of one of the most-wanted men in the world, a charismatic warlord-turned-president-turned-fugitive who finished the day in the custody of a U.N.-backed tribunal that has indicted him on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his long reign of terror across this fragile region.

Among his alleged crimes are mass murder, rape and mutilation, including support for a brutal rebel group in Sierra Leone that cut off the limbs of its civilian victims. Taylor, 58, is also accused of destabilizing Liberia and several neighboring countries while amassing a personal fortune from illicit trade in diamonds, guns and timber.

Taylor, who served as president from 1997 until he resigned under pressure in August 2003, is the first former African head of state to face international criminal charges for alleged misdeeds while in office. After stepping down, he went into exile in the southeastern Nigerian tourist city of Calabar, but last week Nigerian authorities agreed to return him to Liberia at the request of the newly elected president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

"It's an important day for justice in the whole African region," said Ezekiel Pajibo of the Center for Democratic Empowerment, based in Monrovia. "It means that Liberia has begun the process of curbing the culture of impunity that has been existing in our country."

Liberians expressed relief, wonder and some unease at the dramatic turn of events for their former president. Only one day earlier, they had learned that Taylor had mysteriously disappeared from a government guest house in Nigeria where he had spent the past 2 1/2 years in exile. Many Liberians feared that he was on his way back to the country, where he stills commands some support.

Johnson-Sirleaf, who on March 5 requested Taylor's return from Liberia, made no immediate public comments but announced plans to address the country in a televised speech Thursday morning.

Taylor, who lived in the United States for years and served a stint in a Boston jail, returned to Liberia in 1989 to launch his rebel movement. Since then, he has exerted a hold on the imagination of Liberians, first by helping to topple the hated dictator Samuel K. Doe, then by winning election in a country he had terrorized for years.

To many Liberians, his return to power had loomed as a real possibility. As he left for exile, Taylor vowed: "God willing, I'll be back." They were words few Liberians have forgotten.

But it was not the return Taylor and his supporters had envisioned.

The office of Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo announced Tuesday that Taylor had disappeared the night before. Obasanjo ordered the arrest of the security detail that was guarding Taylor and created a commission of inquiry.

News of the disappearance provoked denunciations from the United States, the United Nations, international human rights groups and the special prosecutor in Sierra Leone. Alarm spread through Liberia as well, which has recently begun to show signs of recovering from decades of war and instability.

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