Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president indicted on charges of war crimes, has gone missing just after Nigeria reluctantly agreed to transfer him to a war crimes tribunal, and the White House suggested Tuesday that President Bush may cancel a meeting with Nigeria’s leader, according to media reports.
The Nigerian government reportedly said the warlord vanished Monday night from his villa in the southern city of Calabar, where he had lived in exile since being forced from power under a 2003 peace deal that ended Liberia’s civil war.
The announcement came three days after President Olusegun Obasanjo—under pressure from Washington and others—agreed to surrender Taylor to a U.N.-backed tribunal. He would be the first African leader to face trial for crimes against humanity.
“Right now we’re looking for answers from the Nigerian government about the whereabouts of Charles Taylor,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan reportedly said.
McClellan refused to speculate about whether somebody within the government was involved, the AP reports.
The U.S.-educated Taylor, the most-publicized figure in the conflict diamonds controversy, has been indicted by the tribunal on charges of committing crimes against humanity while in office by aiding and directing a rebel movement during Sierra Leone’s 1991-2001 civil war.
He is accused of trading guns and diamonds with the insurgents, including child fighters, who terrorized victims by chopping off their arms, legs, ears, and lips.
The former warlord also plunged Liberia into years of civil war in 1989 when he led a small rebel band that invaded from neighboring Ivory Coast, and he is subject to arrest if he returns to his home country.
Taylor also has been accused of harboring al-Qaida suicide bombers who attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing 12 Americans and more than 200 Africans, the AP reports.
The Nigerians promised on Saturday to hand over the 57-year-old ex-Liberian president but made no moves to arrest him.
Information Minister Frank Nweke told the British Broadcasting Corp. that Obasanjo was “shocked” by Taylor’s disappearance.
A government statement said Obasanjo was creating a panel to investigate Taylor’s disappearance, the AP reports. The statement raised the possibility he might have been abducted, but did not elaborate.
A Nigerian security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, told the AP that Taylor was in a guarded convoy traveling from Calabar to Port Harcourt, site of the nearest airport, when the cars were stopped.
Diplomats and other Nigerian officials privately offered two different versions of how Taylor could have escaped, saying he was either allowed to flee or gunmen possibly hired by Taylor himself opened fire on the convoy to liberate him, the AP reports. Police said all 22 officers in Taylor’s security detail were detained.
The U.N. Security Council expressed surprise and concern at Taylor’s disappearance and secretary-general Kofi Annan said he planned to talk to the Nigerian authorities about it, the AP reports. He urged all countries to refuse to give Taylor refuge.
Tribunal prosecutor Desmond de Silva warned that Taylor was “a threat to the peace and security of West Africa,” the AP reports.
Liberia’s information minister John McClain told the AP that the government was aware that Taylor’s “alleged disappearance” might create anxiety and was “doing all it can to ensure the peace, security and tranquility of our nation.”