Former Liberian warlord Charles Taylor slipped away 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.
The Nigerian government said Taylor 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 said.
He refused to speculate about whether somebody within the government was involved. “It is the responsibility of the Nigerian government to see that he is conveyed to the special court in Sierra Leone,” McClellan said. “We expect the government of Nigeria to fulfill this commitment.”
The U.S.-educated Taylor 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 was accused of trading guns and gems with the insurgents, including child fighters, who terrorized victims by chopping off their arms, legs, ears and lips.
Taylor subject to arrest in Liberia
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 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 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, said 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.
Police said all 22 officers in Taylor’s security detail were detained.
Taylor’s residence in Calabar, a hillside compound of red-roofed buildings 450 miles southeast of the capital, Abuja, stood nearly deserted on Tuesday. Neighbors said Liberian members of Taylor’s coterie, which numbered in the dozens, had begun leaving in recent days.
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.
Tribunal prosecutor Desmond de Silva warned that Taylor was “a threat to the peace and security of West Africa.”
“His disappearance now from under the eye of a regional superpower ... puts the whole region on the highest alert,” de Silva added.
Liberia’s Information Minister John McClain told The Associated Press 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.”
Obasanjo, who had granted Taylor asylum under an internationally brokered agreement that helped end Liberia’s 14-year civil war, initially resisted calls to surrender Taylor.
But he relented Saturday after Liberia’s new President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf asked that Taylor be handed over for trial.
African leaders have been reluctant to see the continent’s former presidents or dictators brought to justice, apparently fearful they would be the next to be accused of human rights abuses or other crimes.
Taylor has many possible places to hide — including Burkina Faso, where his friend Blaise Compaore is president, or Congo, large parts of which are uncontrolled and inhabited by rebels from several countries.
Loyalist soldiers across three countries
Many of Taylor’s loyalist soldiers are believed to be in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.
The Libyan-trained guerrilla fighter also is believed to have considerable resources. U.N. investigators have said he and his allies stole from the Liberian treasury — filled with proceeds from the sales of diamonds, timber and rubber — even from exile.
Taylor lived in the Boston area during the 1970s, earning an economics degree from Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. He also pumped gas and worked in a plastics factory.
Taylor later joined Samuel Doe’s government but fled after he was accused in 1983 of embezzling nearly a million dollars. He went to the United States, where he was detained on a Liberian arrest warrant.
He escaped from a Massachusetts jail in 1985 — cutting through bars with a hacksaw and climbing down a knotted sheet — to launch the civil war that ousted Doe.