JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has asked Nigeria to extradite her country's former leader, Charles Taylor, to face war crimes charges, a move cheered by human rights advocates but one that is also laden with risks for her battered West African country.
An international court in Sierra Leone, which borders Liberia, has a cell waiting for Taylor, who has been indicted on 17 counts of war crimes. The United States has been putting intense pressure on Nigeria and Liberia to ensure that Taylor faces trial for his role in Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war.
In Sierra Leone, Taylor is accused of supporting rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, whose trademark was mutilating civilians and cutting off their limbs, as well as using children as soldiers.
Taylor left Liberia in 2003, accepting exile in Nigeria in a move that paved the way for the end of a civil war that was racking his country.
Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World Bank official, upset the favored candidate, former soccer star George Weah, in presidential elections last year and took office in January. She has been applauded for her tough stance against corruption, but she has also alienated powerful figures in the country.
In recent months there has been increased speculation about a Taylor trial and whether it would lead to a border attack on Sierra Leone by Taylor supporters in Liberia or to some other destabilizing event. Some have suggested holding the trial outside Africa, but many analysts say that would anger Africans who are highly sensitive to the legacy of colonialism.
President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria confirmed yesterday that Liberia had formally sought Taylor's extradition. Obasanjo has repeatedly promised to hand over Taylor if requested by a democratically elected Liberian president. However, he seemed to be setting new conditions, saying he intends to consult the African Union and West African government leaders.
Johnson-Sirleaf told journalists yesterday that the decision would be collective, involving African leaders. She appealed to the U.N. Security Council: "It is time to bring the Taylor issue to closure."
Nigeria argues that the AU and the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, must be consulted because they were part of the original deal to exile Taylor. But human rights groups and analysts said extradition could become bogged down in a long consultation process, or Taylor might take advantage of the delay to flee.
Johnson-Sirleaf won enthusiastic applause when she addressed a joint session of Congress this week and had the warm backing of the U.N. Security Council yesterday. But the extradition move is seen as her boldest step yet.
Robyn Dixon writes for the Los Angeles Times.