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Ghana Criticized for Not Detaining Liberia President to Face War Crimes Charge

The internationally-backed war crimes court for Sierra Leone has indicted Liberian President Charles Taylor for crimes against humanity in connection with the deaths and torture of tens of thousands of people during Sierra Leone's civil war. The court issued an arrest warrant for the Liberian leader while he was in Ghana Wednesday taking part in Liberian peace talks. But it appears Ghanaian authorities allowed him to leave for home Wednesday night without arresting him.

This indictment accuses Charles Taylor of bearing a great deal of responsibility for the atrocities carried out during nearly a decade of civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone, including the brutal campaign by rebels to hack off limbs of countless civilians considered unsympathetic to their cause.

David Crane, the chief prosecutor of the U.N. backed war crimes court for Sierra Leone, tells VOA the indictment and the arrest warrant were deliberately issued while the Liberian leader was on a rare trip abroad, to make it easier to apprehend him.

But late Wednesday, President Taylor and his entourage were reported to have left Ghana and headed back to Liberia by plane. The Ghanaian authorities apparently did not arrest him and let him return home.

Luc Cote a prosecutor for Sierra Leone's criminal court, was fully expecting Ghana to carry out the court's request. "I think that the Ghanaian authorities had a duty to intervene. If this is confirmed, it's a great shame. In our mind, he doesn't have any immunity because he has been indicted by an international tribunal and it's clear under our statue that there is no immunity for a head of state," he said.

President Taylor did not refer specifically to the indictment against him during Wednesday's peace talks in Accra, saying only that if he is seen as a problem, he would consider stepping down. His government remains under United Nations sanctions, accused of supporting the Sierra Leone civil war by allegedly supplying rebels with weapons in exchange for diamonds.

But his alleged crimes also trace back to Liberia's own brutal civil war, which he launched in 1989 with the use of child soldiers. Nine years later and after the deaths of at least 200,000 people, most of them civilians, Charles Taylor held elections and became president.

David Scheffer helped create Sierra Leone's criminal court while serving as the Clinton administration's ambassador for war crimes.

"For years, he's been speaking out of one side of his mouth about peace and out of the other side of his mouth, he's allegedly been engaged in exactly the opposite, which is war," he said. "And so at some point, and this has been true with other indictees with other tribunals including Mr. [Slobodan] Milosevic, at some point you call a spade a spade and you execute an arrest."

But Wednesday's apparently lost chance to gain that arrest may not come along again. "The chances of actually achieving an arrest of Charles Taylor in Liberia are very, very slim since he is the head of state. It's obviously a very controversial move by the prosecutor but I think it's one that is incumbent upon him to take, if in fact, he is to fulfill his own mandate. That puts the government of Ghana in a very awkward position because, of course, they did not invite Mr. Taylor to Ghana with the expectation that they would be asked to arrest him," added Mr. Scheffer.

Several groups of rebels are fighting the Taylor government, which is now reported to have control of less than half of the West African country.