- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia — Embattled President Charles Taylor accepted an offer of asylum in Nigeria yesterday, but gave no time frame for quitting power and insisted the transition must be orderly.

He again urged the United States to send peacekeepers.

The calls by Mr. Taylor and Nigeria’s leader for a peaceful transition increase pressure on President Bush to send U.S. troops to Liberia to enforce a cease-fire in the war-torn nation.

Mr. Bush heads to Africa today for visits to five nations, including Nigeria, the top power broker in West Africa.

A team of 15 U.S. military experts was to head to Liberia last night to begin assessing whether to deploy troops as part of a regional force, as the Untied Nations, European powers and many Liberians have sought.

Mr. Taylor is under intense international pressure to step down — Mr. Bush said Saturday he would “not take ‘no’ for an answer” — and is holed up in a capital surrounded by rebels. But he has insisted peacekeepers deploy before he will go, to ensure fighting does not erupt again.

Another complication is the threat of trial on war-crimes charges that hangs over Mr. Taylor’s head after his indictment by a court in Sierra Leone.

The Bush administration reacted coldly to any delay in Mr. Taylor quitting.

White House spokesman Jimmy Orr said: “What the president has said is Mr. Taylor needs to leave and leave soon. He needs to leave so peace can be restored.”

One rebel official welcomed the news but said he had no confidence Mr. Taylor would follow through and leave Liberia.

“I hope this time around Mr. Taylor will act on his words,” rebel leader Kabineh Ja’neh said in Accra, Ghana. “Far too often he has failed to honor what he says. We don’t trust him. Not at all.”

Mr. Taylor made his announcement after Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo met him at Monrovia’s airport to personally offer asylum in his country.

“I thank my big brother for coming,” Mr. Taylor said. “He has extended an invitation, and we have accepted an invitation.”

But, Mr. Taylor said, “It is not unreasonable to request that there be an orderly exit from power.” He said U.S. participation in an international peacekeeping force planned for Liberia was “crucial in every way.”

“We embrace it. We accept it,” he said of the possibility of U.S. involvement in a peacekeeping mission.

Mr. Taylor and Mr. Obasanjo would not say when the Liberian president would step down, but both warned that too hasty a departure could spark new fighting in the West African nation, where hundreds were killed in a failed rebel push into the capital last month.

“We believe the exit should not take place in confusion … in a way that will lead to more bloodshed,” Mr. Obasanjo said. “We believe the transition should be orderly and peaceful.” He said the peacekeepers’ deployment should take place “in a very, very short time.”

Mr. Obasanjo arrived by jet to Monrovia airport, stepping into an embrace and kisses on both cheeks by Mr. Taylor. Mr. Taylor’s retinue handed Mr. Obasanjo, dressed in flowing traditional robes, a live white chicken and some cola nuts — a customary Liberian gift symbolizing purity of heart and peace.

Among the hundreds of Taylor supporters on the airport tarmac, many carried banners, one reading, “U.N. please drop the charges against President Taylor, for peace sake.”

The war-crimes indictment, issued June 4 by a U.N.-backed Sierra Leone court, probably weighs heavily in Mr. Taylor’s decision to leave power. He has said Liberia will not know peace until the charges against him are lifted.

Nigeria, like many countries, has no law allowing Mr. Taylor to be extradited to the Sierra Leone court for a war-crimes trial, U.N. officials say.

In an apparent warning that Nigeria should not be pressed to hand over Mr. Taylor, Mr. Obasanjo said his sole condition for the asylum offer is that his country “not be harassed by anyone for inviting Taylor … not by any organization or country for showing this humanitarian gesture.”

The war-crimes court indicted Mr. Taylor for his role in Sierra Leone’s recently ended decade of terror. He has been accused of supporting the brutal Revolutionary United Front rebels, whose trademark atrocity was amputating the arms and facial features of their civilian victims with machetes.

A U.S. military team was due to head from Spain to Liberia yesterday on a mission to study whether American troops should be sent to Liberia to lead a regional force to enforce a cease-fire. The United Nations, several European powers and most Liberians want the Americans to lead the peacekeeping mission. West African leaders have offered 3,000 troops for a force.

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