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.
But an immigration official in Gamboru, in northeastern Nigeria, spotted Taylor in a jeep with diplomatic tags that was attempting to cross into Cameroon about 7:30 a.m., according to Nigerian authorities. Under orders from Obasanjo, who for years had resisted pressure to deliver Taylor to the war crimes court, Taylor was taken into custody and, courtesy of a sleek green-and-white government jet, flown to Monrovia, Liberia's seaside capital.
Reports of Taylor's capture reached Washington a few hours before Obasanjo was due to meet with President Bush at the White House, heading off what would have been an embarrassing encounter for both leaders. Rather than meeting with the man who had lost a war criminal, Bush was able to applaud Obasanjo for the arrest and focus on other issues.
"The fact that Charles Taylor will be brought to justice in a court of law will help Liberia and is a signal, Mr. President, of your deep desire for there to be peace in your neighborhood," Bush told Obasanjo in the Oval Office as cameras recorded the moment.
Obasanjo thanked him and then denied any mishandling of Taylor. "I do not agree, must disagree, that we have been negligent in the way we handled the Charles Taylor issue," he said. "If we had been negligent, then Charles Taylor would have got away."
U.S. officials were not sure what to make of the incident and the dramatic developments. Obasanjo arrived in Washington after 9 p.m. Tuesday amid reports that Taylor had escaped, and the Nigerian president and his delegation were promptly met at their hotel by State Department officials seeking information on what had happened. The national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, met separately at the White House with his Nigerian counterpart, Aliyu Mohammed.
Administration officials went to bed Tuesday night uncertain what would happen at the Oval Office meeting the next morning, but by the time they arrived at work, they had received reports that Taylor had been caught.
"It's an open question as to what happened," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "We will follow up with the Nigerian government on that issue, but as I said, the important fact is that he is in custody and he's going to face justice."
For Taylor's arrival at Roberts International Airport in Monrovia, dozens of Jordanian and Nepalese military police officers took up positions on the tarmac. White U.N. tanks were posted at every corner of the runway and two helicopters patrolled.
A half-hour before Taylor's plane landed, thick clouds rolled in. The temperature dropped. The wind picked up and churned the propellers of a waiting plane. Then rain poured down.
It had slowed only slightly when Taylor's plane landed about 4:30 p.m. The former president, dressed casually in a beige traditional robe and slacks, was somber as he was read his rights and placed under arrest, according to Liberian officials. In a matter of several minutes, he boarded a waiting U.N. helicopter a few steps away.
He was then flown to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. About an hour after arriving there, Taylor was in the custody of the special court.
Many Liberians learned of Taylor's arrest by listening to live radio broadcasts. A surge of jubilation shot through the capital.
"I'm so grateful today to hear that Taylor has gone to Sierra Leone," Samuel Kanneh, 31, said in downtown Monrovia. "Liberia will be safe."
The joy was tinged with frustration that the United Nations, pushed mostly by Western powers, had brought Taylor to justice rather than Liberians themselves.
"He was my president," said Marcus Kelley, 27, a student. "He was loved by a lot of people."
Even Harris Banni, 29, an unemployed man who said his father was killed by Taylor-led rebels, expressed wounded pride at the manner of Taylor's arrest.
"I am a Liberian even though he killed my father," Banni said.
Staff writer Peter Baker in Washington contributed to this report.