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Confusion Mounts in Liberia Over Former President's Fate

Liberians are becoming increasingly confused over whether or not their newly-elected government is seeking the extradition of former president Charles Taylor to face war crimes charges. Mr. Taylor was given asylum in Nigeria in late 2004 to end Liberia's civil war.

The information ministry again denied reports that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf gave a letter to Nigerian authorities asking for Mr. Taylor's extradition on a recent trip to Abuja.

This came as Mr. Taylor's former political party and an aide to Mr. Taylor in Nigeria's southeastern city of Calabar both said the letter and copies of it have been circulating. It also came as Mrs. Sirleaf began preparing meetings in the United States, culminating with possible talks at the White House with President Bush next week.

Mr. Taylor is wanted at the special war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone, where he faces charges of dealing weapons for diamonds, and recruiting child soldiers, creating instability throughout West Africa.

But a political analyst in Monrovia, Jarlawah Tonpo, says Liberians are concerned that the Taylor issue could be disruptive to the country's rebuilding, and that it should not be tied to any aid.

"People are very much concerned in Liberia when it comes to the issue of Charles Taylor going to Sierra Leone," he said. "As a matter of fact, there has been public debate, and talk shows in Monrovia. People are even saying, that the issue of Taylor should be handled more professionally."

Adding to the confusion, a Nigerian spokeswoman said her president, Olusegun Obasanjo, had discussed the Taylor issue Sunday in Abuja with visiting South African President Thabo Mbeki. The two leaders played the most publicized roles in convincing Mr. Taylor to step down in 2004.

At the time though, they said, there should be no criticism or discussion of asylum because they said it was being offered to stop bloodshed.

Several months later, Mr. Obasanjo started saying Mr. Taylor would not be handed over unless it was proven he meddled in Liberian affairs. He then started saying only an elected Liberian government could ask for his extradition.

Since being sworn in in January, Mrs. Sirleaf said the Taylor issue was not her priority, but that she was facing lots of pressure.

The special war crimes court in Sierra Leone has made it its priority to get Taylor to face war crimes charges at its facilities in Freetown. An empty cell there already awaits him.