Liberia's Taylor Goes Into Exile

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is escorted through Monrovia's Roberts International Airport, Monday Aug. 11, 2003, before boarding an aircraft, enroute to exile in Nigeria
AP
Indicted war criminal and former warlord Charles Taylor went into exile in Nigeria on Monday, under international pressure and besieged by rebels who have overrun most of the West African country.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo welcomed Taylor at the international airport in the capital, Abuja. The two leaders shook hands and embraced before walking down a red carpet together.

Taylor arrived in Nigeria hours after surrendering power to his vice president in the capital, Monrovia. Relatives, friends and some government soldiers at the airport cried and wailed as Taylor and his relatives left.

Rebel leader Sekou Conneh, speaking in nearby Ghana, welcomed Taylor's departure from Liberia and declared: "The war is over."

But for a long time Monday it was unclear whether Taylor, who claimed he was sacrificing himself like Jesus, would actually go far enough to allow peace to break out in Liberia, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Phillips.

As a U.S. Marine force stood threateningly offshore – but close enough to be seen – the American-brokered deal to finally end 14 years of civil war unfolded.

The war had raged right up to the moment this deal was struck as ragtag rebel and government forces fought it out in the battlefield the capital, Monrovia, has become.

Taylor's trappings of office, including his limousine, had already been flown out to Nigeria where he's been granted asylum.

And several hours after the deadline for him to get out of town passed, he finally did. But not before making an ominous promise.

"I leave you with these parting words: God willing, I will come back."

Rebel assaults on the capital have killed more than 1,000 people in the past two months alone and driven thousands from their homes. Rebels had threatened more fighting if the former warlord did not leave the country immediately. As Taylor had reneged on promises to resign in the past, his departure was not certain until the moment the plane took off.

"I can hardly believe it. He has brought too much suffering on the Liberian people," said Henry Philips, 38, a former security official. "His absence is better than his presence."

Taylor began his farewell address by exhorting the international community to help Liberia: "We beg of you, we plead with you not to make this another press event."

"History will be kind to me. I have fulfilled my duties," he said, adding, "I have accepted this role as the sacrificial lamb ... I am the whipping boy."

Outside the lavish Executive Mansion where the resignation ceremony took place, crowds of Monrovians cheered Nigerian peacekeepers. The vanguard of a West African peacekeeping force meant to build to 3,250 soldiers has already brought a measure of calm to the country.

Rebels pressing home their three-year campaign to oust Taylor had carved up this city of 1.3 million and left Taylor controlling little but downtown.

Taylor's forces, paid by looting, are accused by rights groups and Liberia's people of routine rape, robbery, torture, forced labor and summary killings. Rebels, to a lesser extent so far, likewise are accused of abuse.

Liberians and West African leaders have urged the United States to take the lead on any peacekeeping operation, claiming Americans have a responsibility to help this blood-soaked nation founded by 19th-century American slaves.

President Bush had conditioned U.S. assistance on Taylor's departure, though — despite the encroaching warships — it remained unclear what role U.S. forces would play. So far, just seven U.S. Marines are on the ground in Monrovia to liaise between U.S. officials and the peacekeeping force, which started deploying last week.

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan was cautiously optimistic about Taylor's resignation, though she would not say if that cleared the way for U.S. troops to deploy.

In his swearing-in ceremony, former Vice President Moses Blah placed his left hand on the Bible and raised his right, pledging to "faithfully, conscientiously and impartially discharge the duties and functions of the Republic of Liberia."

He began his presidency with a moment of silence for all those who have died in Liberia's wars.

"Let the nation begin to heal," Blah said. "Let all of us unite as one people and work to peace."

Rebels have rejected Taylor's choice of successor — a longtime ally and comrade in arms — and demanded that a neutral candidate be chosen to preside over a transition government until elections can be held.

On Monday, however, Conneh said the insurgents didn't "have anything against him (Blah) taking over" for now.

Inside a velvet-draped room in the Executive Mansion, Ghana President John Kufuor told about 300 Liberian and other dignitaries that Blah would hand power to a transitional government in October.

"Today's ceremony marks the end of an era in Liberia," Kufuor said, speaking as head of the West African bloc that has sent peacekeepers to Liberia. "It is our expectation that today the war in Liberia has ended.

He also said South Africa would be contributing troops to the West African force.

Taylor launched Liberia's near-constant conflict with a 1989-96 insurgency. International aid agencies estimate virtually all of Liberia's roughly 3 million people have been chased from their homes by war at one time or another.

Taylor was elected president in 1997 on threats of plunging the country into renewed bloodshed. Rebels — including some of Taylor's rivals from the previous war — took up arms against him two years later.

Taylor has been indicted by a U.N.-backed court for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone, where he allegedly supported a rebel movement notorious for hacking off the limbs of civilians.