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Taylor in custody to face war crimes trial:

Posted By: Jim Thatcher

By Alphonso Toweh

MONROVIA (Reuters) - U.N. officials took custody of ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor in Liberia on Wednesday and flew him to Sierra Leone to face trial for war crimes only hours after Nigeria had captured him as he tried to flee.

Protected by a ring of U.N. troops, U.N. and Liberian officials handcuffed the grim-faced former warlord after he was flown from northern Nigeria where police intercepted him on Wednesday trying to sneak across the border into Cameroon.

He was immediately flown by helicopter toward Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital, where a U.N.-backed special court has indicted him on 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity stemming from Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war.

Taylor, seen as the mastermind of a web of brutal West African regional conflicts that killed as many as 300,000, is accused of receiving diamonds in exchange for supporting Sierra Leonean rebels who often hacked off the limbs of their victims.

His capture eased Nigeria's embarrassment over his mysterious escape on Monday from the villa in the southeastern Nigerian town of Calabar where he had spent two-and-a-half years in exile as part of 2003 deal to end a civil war in Liberia.

Taylor's brief disappearance had initially drawn sharp international criticism as Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo began a visit to the United States.

But Obasanjo said in Washington on Wednesday after meetingPresident George W. Bush he felt vindicated by the capture.

Human rights groups said Taylor's speedy transfer to face justice would send out a strong message on the world's poorest continent, where thousands have endured death and suffering at the hands of dictators, tyrants and warlords.

"Today, Liberia and Sierra Leone are safer and more hopeful places. Today West Africa has moved one step closer to dismantling the devastating grip of impunity," said Corinne Dufka, head of the West Africa office of Human Rights Watch.

TRUNKFUL OF DOLLARS

Earlier, journalists saw Taylor, dressed in a white safari suit and surrounded by about 20 soldiers, walk onto the tarmac at Maiduguri airport, in Nigeria's far northeast, and board a Nigerian presidential jet for the flight to Monrovia.

The 58-year-old former warlord was seized at dawn at the border more than 1,500 km (930 miles) from Calabar, where he had been living in exile until his disappearance on Monday night.

When he was captured, Taylor was traveling in a jeep with diplomatic plates with a woman and boy, and a large amount of money in dollars in a trunk, local officials said.

Nigeria and Liberia have been at odds over how to handle the case since Liberia's newly-elected president asked for him to be handed over in early March.

Taylor went into exile as part of a deal to end 14 years of civil war in Liberia that spilled over into nearby states.

Nigeria had resisted sending Taylor to Sierra Leone, arguing that the terms of his asylum stated that he could only be returned to Liberia.

Some feared that Taylor's presence in Liberia could spark renewed bloodshed in the region as it recovers from the devastating conflict.

Taylor's disappearance from his residence on Monday caused an international outcry. Some U.S. congressmen had urged Bush to cancel Wednesday's meeting with Obasanjo.

(Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon and Felix Onuah in Abuja, Tom Ashby in Lagos)


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