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UN Wants to Try Ex-Liberia President Taylor for War Crimes - 2004-03-07

International pressure to bring former Liberian President Charles Taylor before a war-crimes court is mounting, while at the same time the United States is seeking to freeze the assets of the west-African warlord.

Prosecutors from the U.N.-backed war crimes court for Sierra Leone are searching homes of the exiled Mr. Taylor in Liberia, looking for money, documents, diamonds and weapons.

A warrant issued by directive of Liberia's transitional government says the searches began late Friday with the help of U.N. peacekeepers at Mr. Taylor's main residence, known as the "White Flower," in Monrovia and are to continue in other residences he owns throughout the west African nation.

Sierra Leone's court officially opens its doors Wednesday. Mr. Taylor is one of 11 people indicted under the court's mandate to bring to justice those responsible for atrocities committed during Sierra Leone's civil war, which ended in 2002.

Mr. Taylor, a former rebel in Liberia, is accused of selling weapons to rebels in Sierra Leone in exchange for illegal diamonds. He is also accused of fueling instability throughout the region since the early 1990s. But Nigeria, which has granted Mr. Taylor asylum, has refused to hand him over to the court, as long as he does not meddle in regional affairs.

Nigeria promised Mr. Taylor a safe haven in August, when he left Liberia, effectively ending that country's civil war. Twelve thousand U.N. troops are currently in Liberia trying to disarm former fighters.

The top U.N. official in Liberia, Jacques Klein, says he hopes Mr. Taylor will eventually be forced to stand trial. He says this would be for the good of Liberians.

"It would be like a catharsis if he was tried," he said. "Now you cannot try him in absentia. It is one problem, he has to be there, but I think once that trial is running and the witnesses come forward and they do have the witnesses, they do have the evidence, I think that would be like a daily expose for the people of Liberia to know what really happened."

This week, the Security Council is expected to debate a proposed U.S. resolution to freeze the assets of Mr. Taylor, his family and his associates.

The United States says these funds could be used to undermine the peace process in Liberia. There have been several reports in Liberian newspapers saying Mr. Taylor is trying to fund new rebel groups in Liberia.

U.N. officials say they have seen no evidence of that, but they welcome efforts to freeze Mr. Taylor's funds, which he is alleged to have amassed through illegal trading in diamonds, arms, and timber.

Mr. Taylor denies any wrongdoing, and says he has become a pariah of the international community. He says he went into exile in August as a sacrifice for the good of Liberians.