Taylor: Fugitive, Or Exile?

Living large, at large, West African warlord Charles Taylor makes his home in exile in a jungle villa in southern Nigeria - avoiding an island prison that awaits the indicted war-crimes fugitive off the coast of Sierra Leone.

A $2 million U.S. reward for his capture and a threatened U.S. aid cutoff to his host, Nigeria, have helped make the toppled Liberian leader an ever-more wanted man - but few, including U.S. leaders, seem to want the controversy of actually capturing him.

Over the past week, the Bush administration has come out in opposition to a U.S. congressional push for Taylor's arrest. The State Department is rejecting the newly passed legislation offering $2 million for Taylor's capture, as well as lawmakers' proposed aid cutoff to Nigeria - an oil giant and regional force that no country wants to offend.

Four months into Taylor's exile, the conflict within the United States has stalled the only visible effort to put him before a U.N.-backed war crimes court for Sierra Leone.

"He's facing some of the most serious charges that a human being can be charged with, and for that reason, it's very important that Charles Taylor come to Sierra Leone to face charges at the special court," said Allison Cooper, spokeswoman for the U.N.-Sierra Leone court.

Taylor is accused of crimes against humanity for backing insurgents in Sierra Leone. Rebels there killed tens of thousands of civilians and hacked the limbs off thousands more in a 10-year campaign, ultimately defeated, to win control of that country's government and diamond fields.

The U.N. special court for Sierra Leone announced Taylor's indictment in June, just before Liberia's own rebels launched an offensive that cornered Taylor in his capital, Monrovia.

When Nigeria gave Taylor exile in August, U.S. and U.N. officials agreed, seeing it as the best way to end both the bloody siege of Monrovia and 14 years of war-making by Taylor in West Africa.

At the time, U.N. envoy Jacques Klein, an American, called Nigeria's exile offer "the only elegant solution."

Some leading U.S. lawmakers, like the war crimes court's prosecutors, disagree.

"Taylor is an indicted war criminal who continues to try to destabilize the region, and he must be turned over to the special court," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told The Associated Press.

Leahy and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are leading a Senate threat to cut off aid to Nigeria if it doesn't surrender Taylor.

Leahy and others say the same approach was instrumental in former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's 2001 extradition to the U.N. war crimes court at The Hague, Netherlands.

U.S. lawmakers' moves have angered Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo's government, which has provided three villas in the jungle city of Calabar for Taylor, his family and his aides.

Nigeria "would not be harassed by anyone" into handing over Taylor, Obasanjo's spokeswoman, Remi Oyo, said over the weekend.

Nigeria would see any attempt to nab Taylor as a violation of its sovereignty, Oyo warned.

Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, its largest oil producer and the source of one-fifth of U.S. oil imports. Nigeria is an oil titan, a military giant and recent and highly touted convert to democracy, and when it complains, the United States listens.

On Monday, the State Department took the unusual step of distancing itself from the $2 million reward, under a bounty program handled by the department.

Washington regarded Nigeria as a good place for Taylor to "address the indictment," State Department spokeswoman Susan Pittman told reporters.

The Bush administration also has notified lawmakers of its opposition to the aid cutoff - although the legislation comes with a provision saying the United States can waive the cutoff if it comes up with a solid plan of its own for getting Taylor before the court.

The legislation passed the Senate last week. The cutoff would still have to win approval from the House, where backers say it has bipartisan support. The amount of aid involved is in the tens of millions of dollars.

Taylor's camp in Nigeria last week called the U.S. reward an incentive to assassinate him and police reportedly stepped up security around Taylor's home.

In Sierra Leone, Taylor's lawyer insisted any bid to bring Taylor before the court should wait until the tribunal decides on Taylor's claims of immunity.

"If you have somebody illegally go to Nigeria" to capture Taylor, "they'll have a problem," Terry said by telephone.

Cooper, the court's spokeswoman, said "bilateral and multilateral" efforts are under way for Taylor's arrest, although she declined to identify the countries and agencies involved.

Confinement would likely be lonely - Taylor is thought the only one of the four top Sierra Leone indictees still alive.

Captured rebel leader Foday Sankoh died a raving, then catatonic, madman in July. Of the two others, both commanders, Taylor's forces killed one in May, and the other disappeared at roughly the same time. Ex-comrades, diplomats and others allege both were silenced at Taylor's command, to keep them from testifying before the court.

The government of Liberia is now led by Gyude Bryant, a businessman and prominent member of the Episcopal Church in Liberia who was a founding member of the Liberia Action Party.

Bryant, whose government includes members of the former Taylor government, was chosen as interim leader at a peace conference in August and sworn in as president last month. He is attempting to both disarm rebel forces - after 14 years of civil war - and prepare the nation to hold democratic elections in 2005.

Although the rebel groups signed a peace treaty in August, maintaining order continues to be a problem.

Portland, Oregon's former police chief, Mark Kroeker, has signed on to try to help with that.

He arrived in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, on Sunday to head a U.N. mission to train and rebuild the Liberian national police force.

Assisting Kroeker in the task are over 1,100 civilian police officers from 46 countries including Russia, Thailand, Norway, Sweden, Jordan and a number of African nations.