U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the reported disappearance of former Liberian President Charles Taylor from his Nigerian place of exile is a matter of utmost seriousness. The development spurred calls in Congress for President Bush to cancel his planned meeting Wednesday with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.
The issue of Charles Taylor, seemingly on its way to resolution only a few days ago, has moved back to the top of the U.S.-Nigeria agenda on the eve of President Obasanjo's White House visit.
Nigerian officials said Tuesday that Taylor, wanted for war crimes in Sierra Leone, had disappeared from his place of exile only two days after Nigeria had said Liberia was free to take him into custody.
The Bush administration, which has made the Taylor case a policy priority, expressed deep concern about the turn of events and said it is pressing Nigerian authorities for an explanation.
Questioned about Taylor at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Secretary of State Rice said she could not confirm what had happened to Taylor, but said if he had escaped the custody of the Nigerians it would be a matter of the utmost seriousness with potential damage to bilateral relations:
"There was an understanding that he would be monitored and that he would be at some point - President Obasanjo said when there was a Liberian government - turned over for prosecution by the court. And we were on course for that. If we are no longer on course for that, then we will have to examine why this happened, and have consequences accordingly," said Ms. Rice.
Taylor went into exile in Nigeria in August of 2003 as part of an internationally supported deal to end the long-running civil conflict in Liberia. Only a few months earlier, the U.N.-backed special court for Sierra Leone had indicted him for crimes against humanity for supporting a brutal insurgency in the neighboring country.
At the subcommittee hearing, Senate Democrat Patrick Leahy faulted President Obasanjo for the reported escape and said President Bush should scrap plans to meet with him:
"President Obasanjo has for years thwarted attempts to get Taylor to a court," said Mr. Leahy. "I believe he bears responsibility for letting him escape. I understand he plans to meet with President Bush at the White House tomorrow. I would urge you to cancel that visit until Taylor is in the custody of the court where he belongs."
The Secretary did not respond to the suggestion that the White House cancel the Obasanjo visit, an idea advanced by at least one other member of Congress, House Republican Ed Royce of California.
Royce called the announcement that Taylor had disappeared a nightmare scenario for which the Nigerians must be held accountable.
Secretary Rice said she agreed with Senator Leahy that Taylor, if he was at large, would be a threat to the security of West Africa.
A senior diplomat who spoke to reporters here said at Wednesday's meeting, President Bush and top aides including Secretary Rice would press President Obasanjo and his national security adviser for information on the Taylor case.