Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, captured on the run in Nigeria with sacks full of cash, was flown to Sierra Leone on Wednesday to be tried on war crimes charges.
A white U.N. helicopter carrying Taylor left neighboring Liberia and landed inside the compound of the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal that will try the former warlord, U.N. officials said. A second U.N. chopper also landed on the helipad in the capital, Freetown.
Taylor was captured Tuesday night by security forces in the far northeastern border town of Gamboru, in Borno State, nearly 600 miles from the villa in southern Calabar from which he reportedly disappeared Monday night, Information Minister Frank Nweke said in a statement. He was trying to cross the border into Cameroon.
Earlier Wednesday, a Nigerian jet plane returned Taylor to his homeland Wednesday before the ex-warlord left for a war crimes tribunal, witnesses said.
Liberian police swinging batons beat journalists back from the airstrip as the plane landed and dignitaries rushed to meet it.
Taylor was flown to the Liberian capital Wednesday and then immediately taken by U.N. helicopter to Sierra Leone, where a U.N.-backed tribunal will try him on war crimes charges, witnesses said.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, on a visit to the White House, gave few details about Taylor’s arrest except to say he was picked up in a car with his wife and taken to a regional state capital.
NBC: Fateful Tuesday-night meetings
State Department officials told NBC News Wednesday that two meetings took place in Washington on Tuesday night between U.S. and Nigerian officials, at which the United States told the Nigerians that the meeting between Obasanjo and Bush would be "dramatically different" if Obasanjo did not explain what had happened to Taylor prior to the presidential meeting.
One official said the United States made it clear that it would be a “one-topic conversation” —with none of Nigeria's priorities on the agenda — if the Nigerian officials failed to explain publicly what happened.
During his meeting Wednesday with Obasanjo, Bush said he appreciated Nigeria’s work in apprehending Taylor.
“The fact that Charles Taylor will be brought to justice in a court of law will help Liberia and is a sign of your deep desire for there to be peace in your neighborhood,” Bush told Obasanjo in an Oval Office meeting Wednesday.
Bush said he and Obasanjo also talked about and Darfur and the Sudan, and an international response in helping to end a 21-year civil war. The U.N. Security Council voted last week to keep U.N. peacekeepers in Sudan to monitor an accord ending the civil war.
Caught with sacks of cash
A Nigerian police official said Taylor was in a vehicle with his son, an aide and a local guide when arrested. They also were carrying two 110-pound sacks filled with U.S. and European currency, Alhaji Mohammed Aminu Bello said.
Taylor and his son were taken into custody while the others were let go, Bello said.
A plane carrying Taylor left for Liberia from Maiduguri, capital of northwestern Borno state, a senior police official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Dozens of elite Irish troops in armored personnel carriers parked their vehicles on the airstrip. There are 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Liberia.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had said she wanted Taylor sent to Sierra Leone because his presence in Liberia could destabilize her fragile country as it takes its first steps toward rebuilding since she was installed in January.
Diplomats and court staff at the tribunal gathered near a helipad next to the facility’s prison, which houses other defendants. Top prosecutor Desmond de Silva said he was confident that Taylor soon would be behind bars.
‘Great relief’ at U.N.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters “it’s a great relief that he’s been recaptured.”
“I think his capture and being put on trial does not only close a chapter, but it also sends a powerful message to the region that impunity will not be allowed to stand and would-be warlords will pay a price,” Annan said.
Taylor disappeared just days after Nigeria, which had granted him asylum under a 2003 agreement that helped end Liberia’s 14-year civil war, bowed to pressure to surrender Taylor to face justice before the tribunal.
All 22 Nigerian police officers responsible for guarding Taylor have been arrested, the Nigerian government said Tuesday.
The admission that Taylor had slipped away came an hour before Obasanjo left Nigeria to meet with Bush. The White House had suggested the meeting might be canceled if Nigeria’s leader did not have some answers about Taylor’s disappearance.
Nigerian president ‘vindicated’
Obasanjo said the mood of the White House encounter had “changed drastically” as a result of Taylor’s arrest. “I feel vindicated,” he said as he rejected the notion that Nigerian authorities may have been complicit in Taylor’s escape.
Those who spread such ideas “are wrong and owe an apology.”
Nigeria announced last week it would hand Taylor over to the tribunal to be tried for alleged war crimes related to Sierra Leone’s 1991-2001 civil war, but the government made no moves to arrest him before he disappeared.
Taylor is charged with backing Sierra Leone rebels, including child fighters, who terrorized victims by chopping off their arms, legs, ears and lips. He would be the first African leader to face trial for crimes against humanity.
Other charges against Taylor
While the Sierra Leone tribunal’s charges refer only to the war there, Taylor also has been accused of starting civil war in Liberia and of harboring al-Qaida suicide bombers who attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing more than 200 people.
Obasanjo initially resisted calls to surrender Taylor. But after Sirleaf asked Saturday that Taylor be handed over for trial, Obasanjo agreed.
Security officials in Liberia said they had arrested several Taylor supporters, allegedly for holding secret meetings to plot how Taylor could avoid standing trial.
Many of Taylor’s loyalist soldiers are believed to be roaming freely in Liberia, Sierra Leone and civil-war divided Ivory Coast, from where Taylor launched his rebel incursion into Liberia on Dec. 24, 1989.