Abidjan — The UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone on Wednesday indicted Liberian President Charles Ghankay Taylor for his alleged role in crimes committed during a 10-year civil war in Sierra Leone, and sent a warrant of arrest to the Ghanaian authorities and the INTERPOL.
The announcement set off mass panic in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, bringing the city to a complete stop. Security was tightened with heavily armed soldiers manning roadblocks. In the afternoon Taylor called a local radio station and urged people to remain calm. He directed all soldiers to return to barracks for new orders.
David Crane, the court's chief prosecutor, said that Taylor was indicted for "bearing the greatest responsibility" for war crimes, crimes against humanity and serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sierra Leone since 30 November 1996.
"The indictment was judicially approved on March 7th and until today, was sealed on my request to the Court," Crane said in a statement. "My office was given an international mandate by the UN and Sierra Leone to follow the evidence impartially wherever it leads. It has led us unequivocally to Taylor."
Crane also warned all factions fighting in Liberia to respect international humanitarian law. Their commanders, he said, were under international legal obligation to prevent their members from violating the laws of war and committing crimes against humanity.
Two rebel groups, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), are fighting Taylor in Liberia. Human rights groups say both the government and rebels have committed abuses against civilians.
Taylor was in Ghana for peace talks with the rebels when the indictment was made. "Upon learning that Taylor was traveling to Ghana, the Registrar of the Special Court served the outstanding warrant for his arrest on Ghanaian authorities and transmitted the arrest warrant to INTERPOL," Crane said.
The court said the indictment was intended to ensure the legitimacy of [the Accra] negotiations. "It is imperative that the attendees know they are dealing with an indicted war criminal. These negotiations can still move forward, but they must do so without the involvement of this indictee," it said. The opening session of the talks however went ahead.
Created through an international agreement between the UN and Sierra Leone to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for crimes committed during the Sierra Leonean war, the court has so far indicted nine individuals including former rebel commanders Foday Sankoh, Issa Sessay and the late Sam Bockarie. Others are Morris Kallon, Augustine Gbao, Johnny Paul Koroma, Alex Tamba Brima, Brima Bazzy Kamara and Samuel Hinga Norman. Seven of those individuals are in custody. Koroma remains at large.
The Sierra Leonean war was launched by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels backed by Taylor. The RUF waged one of the most brutal wars ever seen, plundering, raping and amputating thousands of Sierra Leoneans. In 2001, the UN Security Council asked Taylor to end support to the RUF and stop trading in Sierra Leone's diamonds.
An unsatisfactory response prompted the Council to impose a ban on diamond exports, restrict travel by some officials and embargo the sale or supply of weapons to Taylor's government. The sanctions were renewed last month for 12 months and a ban on timber exports was added.
The RUF remains close to Taylor. Some of its fighters were integrated into Taylor's elite Anti-Terrorist Unit. Others like its former commander, Bockarie, fought alongside Taylor but was killed on 6 May in Liberia. The government said he was killed while resisting arrest, following his indictment by the court. But diplomats say he was killed on Taylor's orders after an argument in Monrovia.
Even after Sierra Leone's war ended, fear remained of Taylor. In August 2002, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone requested the UN to extend the mandate of its peacekeeping force in his country, the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), "because the escalating conflict in Liberia is threatening to destabilise the entire area once again."
Taylor led an armed insurrection with the backing of Cote d'Ivoire against the Liberian government of Samuel Doe from 1989 and controlled most of Liberia by 1992. He won elections agreed to by the warring factions in 1997. But his opponents took up arms, starting the current wave of fighting in 1999.
Fighting has devastated Liberia. At least 200,000 Liberians have been internally displaced by the current conflict and thousands more forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. More than two thirds of the country is inaccessible, relief workers say.