A United Nations-sponsored war crimes court charged Liberian President Charles Taylor with crimes against humanity Wednesday for a 10-year terror campaign in which tens of thousands of people were killed, raped, kidnapped or maimed in neighboring Sierra Leone, The Associated Press reports.
Taylor, a warlord-turned-president, long had been accused of running guns and keeping close ties to Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front, the rebels whose ruinous battle for control of Sierra Leone’s diamond fields ended last year.
The indictment accuses Taylor of “bearing the greatest responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity and serious violations of international humanitarian law,” said David Crane, the American prosecutor of the joint U.N.-Sierra Leone war-crimes court that issued the indictment and subsequent arrest warrant, the AP reports.
The indictment sparked panic in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. Civilians, apparently afraid of a violent power struggle if Taylor is removed, rushed home by the thousands, crying out frantically for their children, and soldiers careered through the streets in machine-gun mounted jeeps, the AP reports.
“The war crimes tribunal doesn’t mean well for us,” one woman reportedly wailed.
Military brass ordered members of Liberia’s army, marines, and navy to their barracks, the AP reports.
The Sierra Leone tribunal was created by the United Nations and Sierra Leone to try serious violations committed since Nov. 30, 1996, when rebels signed a peace accord that failed to end the war.
News of the indictment found Taylor in nearby Ghana, surrounded by African leaders trying to end a three-year campaign by Liberian rebels to oust him. Liberia’s two rebel groups control about 60% of the country and are fighting ever more aggressively to take Monrovia, the AP reports.
There apparently was no attempt to arrest Taylor, and he and his entourage flew home to Monrovia late Wednesday, a day earlier than planned, the AP reports.
Ghana’s attorney general, Papa Owusu Ankomah, said authorities had not received the indictment and, once they did, would need time to review it, the AP reports. That gave Taylor plenty of time to return home, where arresting him would be extremely difficult.
One of the people who helped create the Sierra Leone-U.N. court, based in Freetown, decried the failure to arrest Taylor away from his home country.
“Now that he’s on a plane back to Liberia, he’s an indicted head of state and an indicted fugitive,” David Scheffer, a former U.S. ambassador, reportedly said. “Among the bad guys in the world today, Charles Taylor is in the top five and therefore there is simply no plausible argument for him to remain at liberty.”
Taylor, in sunglasses and cream-colored suit, looked tense as he arrived at the talks’ site in Accra, Ghana’s capital, minutes after the indictment was announced, the AP reports. He unexpectedly said he would surrender power soon, but did not mention the Sierra Leone indictment.
“If President Taylor is seen as a problem, then I will remove myself,” Taylor reportedly told the conference hall, speaking of himself in the third person. “I’m doing this because I’m tired of the people dying. I can no longer see this genocide in Liberia.”
His announcement drew loud applause from the dignitaries in Accra, including Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, the AP reports.
“It has become apparent that some people believe that Taylor is the problem. President Taylor wants to say that he intends to remove himself from the process,” Taylor reportedly said.
Taylor reportedly told delegates he does not want to stay in office a day after the end of his term. It is unclear when that might be, though Taylor has talked of elections for this year and said he planned to run.
Taylor sparked civil war in Liberia in 1989 with a failed coup attempt. The war killed hundreds of thousands in the West African country. He was elected in 1997 after emerging as the strongest warlord from the conflict.
Taylor aligned himself with Sierra Leone’s rebels early in their war, selling them weapons in exchange for diamonds he would then sell abroad. Taylor’s ties to the Sierra Leone rebels date back more than a decade to when he trained with rebel leader Foday Sankoh in Libya. Sankoh also was indicted and is in custody.
Taylor still is under U.N. sanctions for alleged gunrunning and other ties with West Africa’s many rebel movements. The sanctions include a ban on travel outside of Liberia.
Crane, the prosecutor, made clear he had timed the indictment to Taylor’s trip abroad, the AP reports. In his statement, Crane said those attending the Ghana peace talks should “know they are dealing with an indicted war criminal.”
It was unclear who would have the standing to arrest Taylor. David Coker, a spokesman for a U.N. peace mission in Sierra Leone, reportedly called it the responsibility of the Sierra Leone government.
American and British prosecutors have taken top roles in the U.N.-Sierra Leone court. The United States, while refusing to support a standing international war-crimes court, has backed creation of individual courts such as that for Sierra Leone.
Ultimately, it took military intervention by former colonial ruler Britain, West African neighbor Guinea, and the world’s largest U.N. peace force to crush Sierra Leone’s rebels. The government officially declared its war over in January 2002.