Liberia's ex-president disappears


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Nigerian authorities said yesterday that former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who was indicted on war crimes charges by a United Nations tribunal in Sierra Leone, had disappeared from his oceanfront retreat in Nigeria, in what analysts saw as a blow to justice and Liberia's hopes of recovering from its devastating civil war.

With Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo scheduled to meet with President Bush today in Washington, Nigerian officials said Taylor's entire security detail had been arrested and an investigation had been launched into whether he had escaped or been abducted.

Taylor's disappearance came days after Nigeria agreed to surrender him to Liberia, whose recently elected president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has called for him to be tried by the international panel. Conspiracy theories swirled on who was to blame, their motives and where Taylor might be headed.

Analysts warned that Liberia could face unrest if Taylor is not found quickly. Others predicted that Johnson-Sirleaf would have trouble pushing ahead with her anti-corruption campaign if civil servants and businessmen were fearful that Taylor might return and punish them for supporting her.

Nigeria faced condemnation from human rights groups which had warned last week when Liberia formally requested his extradition that Taylor could escape unless he was arrested swiftly. But a spokesman for Obasanjo said Monday that Taylor was not a prisoner in Nigeria and that it was up to the Liberians to come and get him.

Nigeria has grown in importance as an oil supplier in recent years, giving Africa's most-populous nation increasing influence, but it has been under intense U.S. pressure to hand over Taylor.

"We're looking for answers from the Nigerian government about the whereabouts of Charles Taylor," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan when asked if the meeting between Bush and Obasanjo would still occur. "It is the responsibility of the Nigerian government to see that he is conveyed to the special court in Sierra Leone. We expect the government of Nigeria to fulfill this commitment."

Prosecutor Desmond de Silva , who in recent days called for Taylor to be arrested by Nigeria, issued a statement yesterday describing the disappearance as "an affront to justice."

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