Abuja, Nigeria The international war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone urged Nigeria on Sunday to arrest exiled Liberian warlord Charles Taylor immediately amid fears the former president might flee to avoid trial for crimes against humanity.
Nigeria reluctantly said Saturday it was ready to hand over Taylor, sending a warning to other warmongers on the continent.
"The watching world will wish to see Taylor held in Nigerian detention to avoid the possibility of him using his wealth and associates to slip away, with grave consequences to the stability of the region," the prosecutor of Sierra Leone's war tribunal, Desmond de Silva, said Sunday.
De Silva said he had sent a message asking Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to arrest Taylor.
The former Liberian leader has been in exile in the southern Nigerian city of Calabar since being forced from power under a 2003 accord that ended a rebel assault on Liberia's capital.
Nigeria "has resisted persistent pressures to violate the understanding of 2003," giving Taylor refuge under an internationally brokered peace deal, Obasanjo said in a statement Saturday. Nevertheless, he had informed Liberia's president that "the government of Liberia is free to take former President Charles Taylor into its custody."
Liberia's Information Minister Johnny McClain said his government was working Sunday with other countries to get Taylor sent directly to Sierra Leone.
An international tribunal indictment says Taylor is criminally responsible for the devastation of Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone and for the murder, rape, maiming and mutilation of more than a half-million Sierra Leoneans.
Taylor, who could not be reached for comment, is accused of starting a 14-year civil war in his homeland that brutalized tens of thousands of young boys and girls drafted as rebel fighters. He also is blamed for a savage war in Sierra Leone where rebels - including child fighters - terrorized victims by chopping off arms, legs, ears and lips.
Each of the 17 charges he faces carries a sentence of life in prison.
Taylor also is accused of harboring al-Qaida suicide bombers who attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
Many African leaders are leery of trying former presidents or dictators, apparently worrying they could be the next to be accused of human rights abuses or other crimes. Others fear a push to try toppled leaders would encourage those in power to more fiercely resist democratic change.
After her inauguration in January, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said a trial for Taylor was not a priority. But she made a formal request to Nigeria after an official visit to Washington, which is the source of aid needed to rebuild Liberia.