ACCRA, Ghana — Liberian President Charles Taylor, indicted by a United Nations-mandated court for war crimes in Sierra Leone, yesterday promised to form a unity government at the start of landmark peace talks to end Liberia’s four-year war.
“I want to form a national unity government immediately after the expiration of my term” in January, Mr. Taylor said at the conference’s opening ceremony in Ghana’s capital, Accra.
“I will strongly consider a process that does not include me,” he said, adding: “Charles Taylor is not the problem.”
The peace talks are the first time that the Liberian belligerents will sit face to face.
Earlier yesterday, a special court probing excesses during a brutal civil war in Sierra Leone indicted Mr. Taylor for “bearing the greatest responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity and serious violation of international humanitarian law in Sierra Leone until Nov. 13, 1996.”
The Liberian president was already under U.N. sanctions on charges of backing Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front rebels in the brutal war that raged from 1991 until January last year and claimed up to 200,000 lives.
Meanwhile, Mr. Taylor and the Liberian rebels fighting him have been accused of flagrant human rights abuses, including murder, torture, kidnapping, rape and use of child fighters in the devastating civil war in Liberia.
Opening the conference, Ghanaian President John Kufuor — chairman of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is brokering the talks with a U.N.-backed contact group — said Africa is fed up with the Liberian conflict.
Mr. Kufuor said the “killing fields” had not only diverted the attention and energies of ECOWAS, but also imposed a huge humanitarian burden on West Africa. “It has caused a humiliating damage to West Africa’s collective image and has reduced the region’s attractiveness as an investment destination.”
The Ghanaian president said Liberia’s survival “is the concern of all Africa, and indeed the black race.”
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged an immediate cease-fire in a special message, adding: “Lasting peace cannot be imposed from the outside. Liberian leaders must demonstrate a genuine and concrete readiness to restore peace and stability.”
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, one of the six African heads of state attending the ceremony, said West Africa had paid a heavy price for Liberia.
“The people of Liberia have bled enough. The people of West Africa have made enough sacrifices for Liberia,” he said.
The Ghanaian and Liberian foreign ministers, meanwhile, refused to comment on Mr. Taylor’s indictment. Ghanaian officials would not say whether the Liberian president would be arrested or allowed to return home.
David Crane, the prosecutor of the special court in Sierra Leone, said the indictment against Mr. Taylor had been approved March 7, but remained under seal until yesterday to coincide with Mr. Taylor’s appearance in Accra.
“It is imperative that the attendees know they are dealing with an indicted war criminal,” Mr. Crane said.
“These negotiations can still move forward, but they should do so without the involvement” of Mr. Taylor, the prosecutor said, questioning the Liberian president’s “suitability to be a guarantor of any peace agreement.”
The opening ceremony was attended by rebels from Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, but boycotted by the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, a new insurgent movement.
Mr. Taylor now controls three of Liberia’s 15 counties.
Liberia’s 18 registered political parties and civil society groups also will take part in the talks, set to be brokered by former Nigerian President Abdulsalami Abubakar. The Ghanaian hosts said the talks could go on for two weeks.
Mr. Taylor, a warlord in Liberia’s civil war that raged throughout the early 1990s, came to power after winning elections in 1997, the year that seven-year conflict ended.