Charles Taylor was charged with “bearing the greatest responsibility” for war crimes, crimes against humanity and violations of international humanitarian law during Sierra Leone’s brutal 10-year civil war.
Taylor is charged with arming the Revolutionary United Front, a paramilitary rebel group allegedly behind the killing, kidnapping, rape and mutilation of tens of thousands of civilians during the fight for control of the country and its lucrative diamond mines.
“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. It has led us unequivocally to Taylor,” David Crane, the U.N. court’s chief prosecutor, said in a statement.
The announcement came as Taylor was participating in peace talks in Ghana with rebel groups who have been fighting to oust him since 2000. The rebels currently control some 60 percent of Liberia, with battle lines recently coming to within 40 miles of the country’s capital.
U.N. officials served a warrant for Taylor’s arrest to Ghanaian authorities and also notified the international police organization Interpol, a U.N. press statement said.
“We do believe that at the end of the day, Ghana will do the right thing, that they will arrest him and turn him over to the special court,” special court prosecutor Alan White told Reuters Wednesday afternoon local time.
Following his indictment, Taylor appeared at a ceremony along with the leaders of South Africa, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Ghana to open the peace talks. Although no one in attendance discussed or acknowledged the court’s action, Taylor said he would consider stepping aside if it would bring peace to his country.
“I will strongly consider a process of transition that will not include me,” Taylor said, later adding: “If President Taylor removes himself for the Liberians, will that bring peace? If so, I will remove myself.”
Despite the public calls for Taylor’s arrest, hours later the Liberian leader left the Ghanaian capital of Accra, returning home by plane.
Ghanaian Foreign Minister Nana Akufo-Addo told reporters Taylor’s return despite the U.N. order for his arrest is “an embarrassing incident.” But the minister also questioned the timing of the court’s move.
“[T]he focus should not be on our embarrassment,” he said. “I believe the action of the prosecutor in unsealing the indictment at this particular moment has not been helpful to the peace process.”
Back in Liberia, word of Taylor’s indictment has touched off a panic, according to Associated Press reporter Clarence Roy-Macaulay.
“Thousands of civilians, apparently afraid that Taylor’s regime was near collapse, fled their homes, while security forces roamed the city in machine-gun mounted jeeps,” he wrote.
Samuel Jackson, Liberia’s minister of state for economic and financial affairs, said the indictment seemed to be an interference in his country’s affairs by foreign powers and was “tantamount to a declaration of war.”
“But we are on the path to peace and we will not give vent to our pugnacity,” he said, according to Reuters.
Taylor himself sparked a revolt in Liberia in 1989 in an attempt to end years of dictatorship — a conflict that cost a reported 200,000 lives. He assumed power after a democratic election in 1997, but faced his own rebel uprising three years later.
After Liberia descended into civil war in the early 1990s, widespread fighting began in neighboring Sierra Leone as well, led by rebels who reportedly crossed into the country from Liberia. The fighting grew more brutal over time, with roving bands of rebels often hacking the limbs of civilians as they roamed the countryside.
A 1996 peace accord failed to stop the fighting, and the war raged in Sierra Leone until troops from the U.N., Britain and the West African nation of Guinea succeeded in disarming the combatants in January 2002.
In all, 75,000 people were killed, and about 2 million — almost half the entire population — were displaced from their homes.
In a press statement following Taylor’s indictment, Crane said the move was meant to send a “clear message” to factions in Liberia that even commanders must follow international law.
“The evidence upon which this indictment was approved raises serious questions about Taylor’s suitability to be a guarantor of any deal, let alone a peace agreement,” Crane said.