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Nigeria Seizes Wanted Warlord Charles Taylor at Border

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Charles Taylor is in custody. The former Liberian president and warlord was seized today by police near Nigeria's border. Charles Taylor had disappeared Monday night, soon after Nigerian authorities bowed to international pressure to hand him over to Liberia to be tried for war crimes. Charles Taylor is one topic sure to be discussed at the White House today when President Bush meets with Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo. We're joined now from the Nigerian capital, Abuja, by NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. And Ofeibea, what are Nigerian authorities saying about the arrest of Charles Taylor?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

We're being told that he was arrested about a thousand north of his southern residence in Calabar, in (unintelligible)--that he was traveling in a jeep with diplomatic license plates, and that he was traveling with a woman and a small child, and apparently, a whole trunk full of dollars, cash. And that he was caught at the border, and captured and taken into military custody. So, that's the latest, but we must also remember that Charles Taylor is wanted for crimes against humanity at a war crimes tribunal, U.N.-backed, in Sierra Leone for fueling the civil war across Liberia's border.

MONTAGNE: Taylor is, in fact, alleged to have committed some pretty horrendous crimes. Outline the charges against him, please.

QUIST-ARCTON: Seventeen charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. And that includes killing a whole lot of civilians and rebel troops in Sierra Leone, including very young boys. Not only slitting open the bellies of pregnant women, but just to show that they were in control and had the power, they amputated and lopped off people's noses, their arms, their ears, their legs, and showed that they were very much going to take over Sierra Leone. And it's said that, not only did Charles Taylor bankroll these rebels, he also fueled the civil war there, and exchanged blood diamonds, as they were called, for arms and ammunition.

MONTAGNE: Taylor was American educated. He was well spoken, once backed by the U.S. as kind of a great hope for Liberia. What happened?

QUIST-ARCTON: I don't know about a great hope for Liberia, but certainly, a fast-talking man who fosters his image as a preacher and a conduit through God. He said the Liberian civil war was God's war. Charles Taylor, people say, was too ambitious, wanted too much money. He launched the civil war in Liberia back in 1989 after escaping, in fact, from a U.S. penitentiary outside Boston, Massachusetts. But people have said he wanted too power, not only in Liberia and West Africa, and that's where he came (unintelligible). Taylor's people say they blame the United States for, at all costs, wanting him out of office in Liberia, and that happened in 2003.

MONTAGNE: And why did Nigeria agree to grant Charles Taylor exile in that country back in 2003? And, I guess, there was pressure, but what were all the reasons that they decided to give him up?

QUIST-ARCTON: Huge pressure from the United States, from the United Nations, from Britain, from the European Union, from the African Union. Literally, the rebels were at the gates of Monrovia, the Liberian capital. They said they were going to overthrow Taylor. So, everybody says in Nigeria, please take him into exile, give him asylum. We can end this civil war in Liberia, and hope that there's a bit more stability in West Africa. So, the United States very implicated in this agreement. Nigeria has always said it did that because everybody asked it to, and to hand Charles Taylor over to the War Crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone was not part of the deal, that he was already an indicted war criminal before Nigeria offered him asylum. So, there has been this sort of diplomatic dispute between Washington, Nigeria, Liberia, and the region, about who was responsible for handing Taylor over.

MONTAGNE: This Charles Taylor saga involves all the nations you just mentioned. Give us some perspective, some context, here.

QUIST-ARCTON: Charles Taylor is seen very much as a destabilizing force in West Africa. Not only did he start the civil war in Liberia, fueled the civil war across the border in Sierra Leone, there's another civil war across Liberia's border in Ivory Coast. So, many people are saying Charles Taylor must face these war crimes charges. Immunity is just not an option, and that other African leaders must watch out. If they destroy countries, they must face the music.

MONTAGNE: Ofeibea, thanks very much. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. Former Liberia president Charles Taylor was arrested today in Nigeria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.
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