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Liberian President Pressured to Resign - 2003-07-03


Amid growing calls for U.S. military intervention in Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves, President Bush is calling for Liberian President Charles Taylor to resign. But if he leaves power, Mr. Taylor faces the threat of arrest on a war crimes indictment issued last month in neighboring Sierra Leone.

The indictment was issued by the U.N. backed court in Sierra Leone, as Mr. Taylor attended Liberian peace talks in Ghana.

Mr. Taylor has been accused of supporting rebels in Sierra Leone, notorious for maiming their victims. Mr. Taylor is alleged to have helped the rebels, so he could smuggle weapons, diamonds, and timber. He denies the charges.

Ghanaian authorities refused to arrest Mr. Taylor when the indictment was handed down. They said the timing of the indictment was an embarrassment to their efforts to end the fighting in Liberia. Mr. Taylor then returned home, just as rebels who control most of the country launched a new offensive on Monrovia, Liberia's capital, before being pushed back by pro-government forces.

Other west African leaders also called the indictment an embarrassment. Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo said, when someone is invited in Africa, you do not turn around and arrest the person.

The comment came from a leader who a few months before had accused Mr. Taylor of supporting rebels in Ivory Coast.

But Liberian opposition activist Commany Wisseh finds nothing wrong in the timing of the indictment. What disturbs him, he says, is how African leaders reacted to it.

"Many of us are quite appalled by the behavior, or responses, of some of our leaders," he said. "I mean, they bring too much shame, as I see it, to Africa, because what they say and do does not generally represent the thinking of Africans on the issues of human rights, or the issues of violations.

I think some of them are covering themselves. They are terrified by the notion that there will come a day when some of them will have to answer, will have to be accountable for their own practices," he added. "I think that is why they are reacting the way they are doing, because they are not helping the Liberian people."

After Mr. Taylor left the talks in Ghana, envoys for his government and rebels were able to sign a cease-fire accord. The agreement called for Mr. Taylor to step down to give way to a transitional government.

But a few days later, Mr. Taylor, himself a former rebel, said he would stay in office until January, when he says his elected mandate expires. His statement prompted a new rebel offensive.

Mr. Wisseh points out that Mr. Taylor was sworn-in in August 1997, so, technically, his six-year term should end this month. Mr. Wisseh also fears that, if international peacekeepers are deployed in Liberia, Mr. Taylor will also try to ensure that they are deployed in a way that will enable him to remain in power.

Nigerian diplomats say they recently made an offer to Mr. Taylor, promising him safe haven in Nigeria, if he leaves power. Aides to Mr. Taylor say he refused immediately, in part because he fears Nigeria will not protect him from the indictment by the U.N. court in Sierra Leone.

Mr. Taylor is already under U.N. sanctions for supporting rebels throughout west Africa. He is alleged to have stashed at least $1 billion, gained through illicit trading, in Swiss bank accounts, charges he also denies.

The British ambassador currently leading a U.N. Security Council delegation in west Africa, Jeremy Greenstock, says he understands Nigeria's incentive to find a solution to the Liberian crisis. But he warns there should be no impunity for war criminals.

"We recognize that the leaders of the region have to take their own decisions, because, like us, they feel strongly for the suffering of the people of Liberia, and politicians have to make choices in these circumstances," he said. "We want them to do so, while making clear that there is no impunity for anyone who has committed gross abuses of human rights or humanitarian law."

Mr. Greenstock says west African countries should pass new laws, so they can extradite war crimes suspects to the court in Sierra Leone, which has much less power than other international tribunals.

A spokesman for the special court in Freetown, David Hecht, says, because of the way it was set up, the court depends entirely on the good will of governments to carry out its mandate.

"The court is different from the courts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in that it does not have Chapter Seven powers of enforcement that are given a U.N. court; and this is not a U.N. court," he said. " It is a U.N. backed court, created through an agreement between the U.N. and the government of Sierra Leone. But it is independent of both the U.N. and the government of Sierra Leone. "

News this week that U.S. Marines were on standby in Spain for possible intervention in Liberia prompted celebrations in the capital Monrovia. Many civilians who have been protesting daily in front of the U.S. Embassy say they hope U.S. forces could simply come in and arrest Mr. Taylor, so they could build a better future without him.

Currently an estimated 85 percent of the adult population is unemployed.

Mr. Taylor has said he would welcome the arrival of U.S. troops, but he has also warned there will be no peace in Liberia, unless the indictment is lifted.

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