- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2003

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — A U.N.-backed war crimes court indicted Liberian President Charles Taylor yesterday, accusing him of “the greatest responsibility” in the vicious 10-year civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone. The indictment touched off panic in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. Thousands of civilians, apparently afraid that Mr. Taylor’s regime was near collapse, fled their homes, while security forces roamed the city in machine-gun mounted jeeps. Liberian Gen. Benjamin Yeaten went on radio to tell Liberia’s military to return to barracks. Mr. Taylor, a warlord-turned-president, has long been accused of arming Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front, which killed, raped, kidnapped and maimed tens of thousands of civilians in the 1990s as it battled for control of Sierra Leone’s diamond fields. Prosecutors at the Sierra Leone court issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Taylor in Ghana, where he was making a rare trip abroad for peace talks with Liberian rebels controlling about 60 percent of his country. The indictment accused Mr. Taylor of “bearing the greatest responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity and serious violations of international humanitarian law” during Sierra Leone’s civil war. “My office was given an international mandate by the United Nations and the Republic of Sierra Leone to follow the evidence impartially wherever it leads,” the court’s American prosecutor, David Crane, said in a statement. “It has led us unequivocally to Taylor.” Minutes after the indictment was made public, Mr. Taylor appeared at the ceremony opening the peace talks in Accra, Ghana’s capital. Ghana Attorney General Papa Owusu Ankomah said late yesterday that authorities had not received the warrant. When they did, he said, Ghana authorities would have to review the court’s jurisdiction and whether it was within diplomatic protocol to act on it. Looking tense, Mr. Taylor, in sunglasses and a cream-colored suit, stepped away from his motorcade and walked slowly into the conference hall with other West-African officials. He did not speak to reporters. Inside, Mr. Taylor told delegates he would step down if he is seen as an obstacle to peace in Liberia. He did not mention the Sierra Leone indictment. “If President Taylor is seen as a problem, then I will remove myself,” Mr. Taylor said. “I’m doing this because I’m tired of the people dying. I can no longer see this genocide in Liberia.” Mr. Taylor has spoken of elections later this year, but no firm date has been set. He told delegates he intended to leave office when his term expires, though he hasn’t said exactly when that will be. “It has become apparent that some people believe that Taylor is the problem,” Mr. Taylor said. “President Taylor wants to say that he intends to remove himself from the process.” A former gas station attendant in Boston, Mr. Taylor sparked civil war in Liberia in 1989 with a failed coup attempt. The war has killed hundreds of thousands in the West African country, which was founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century. He took power in a democratic election in 1997, after emerging as the strongest warlord from the conflict. The Sierra Leone indictment and arrest warrant set up a potential showdown between Mr. Taylor and prosecutors of the U.N.-endorsed court. West-African mediators were expected to be reluctant to see Mr. Taylor taken into custody after they had invited him to Ghana for peace talks. There was no evident move to enforce the warrant and indictments, announced as Africa’s top leaders — Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, and at least three other presidents — met in Accra to open the peace talks with Mr. Taylor. It was not clear who would have standing to arrest Mr. Taylor. David Coker, a spokesman for a U.N. peace mission in Sierra Leone, called it the responsibility of the Sierra Leone government. U.N. refugee chief Rudd Lubbers, touring West Africa last month, openly called for Mr. Taylor’s forced removal, calling him the “center” of the wars roiling the region. Military intervention by the United Nations, the West-African nation of Guinea and former colonial ruler Britain ended the Sierra Leone war in January 2002. Mr. Crane acknowledged that the indictment was timed to Mr. Taylor’s trip out of Liberia. “To ensure the legitimacy of these negotiations, it is imperative that the attendees know they are dealing with an indicted war criminal,” the American prosecutor said. Mr. Crane insisted the talks should move forward without Mr. Taylor, saying evidence for the indictment “raises serious questions about Taylor’s suitability to be a guarantor of any deal, let alone a peace agreement.” The Sierra Leone tribunal was created by an agreement between 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. 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. The United Nations has put Mr. Taylor under sanctions on charges of gunrunning and other trafficking with West Africa’s many rebel movements. The sanctions include a ban on travel outside of Liberia. It was not clear whether the trip to the Ghana peace talks violated the travel ban. Sierra Leone’s war crimes tribunal differs from those of Rwanda and Yugoslavia in that its proceedings will be held in the country and include a mix of local and international prosecutors and judges.

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