U.S. Scolds Nigeria over Missing Liberian Warlord

Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo is en route to Washington for talks with the Bush administration. But the White House has suggested that President Bush may call off a meeting with Obasanjo that's planned for Wednesday. The White House wants to know how Liberian warlord Charles Taylor escaped.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The White House has suggested that President Bush may refuse to meet with the president of Nigeria tomorrow. U.S. officials are waiting to hear more about how an indicted war criminal, former Liberian President Charles Taylor, managed to disappear in Nigeria. He'd been living in exile there, but fled just as diplomatic efforts were underway to get him to an international war crimes court. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, reporting:

Former war crimes prosecutor David Crane wasn't particularly surprised by the news of Taylor's disappearance, but is distraught.

Mr. DAVID CRANE: (Prosecutor): This is the nightmare scenario. Charles Taylor loose in the bush, planning, scheming and ready to return.

KELEMEN: He says Liberians have good reason to fear Taylor's return. Crane wrote the 17-count indictment against the former Liberian president who is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the civil war in Sierra Leone.

Mr. CRANE: The people of Africa, we've been trying to tell them that no one is above the law, and here we have someone, the first African head of state ever to be indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity, allowed to disappear by another African head of state. Sure it's a bleak day for Africa.

KELEMEN: Though Crane says Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo should be held accountable a Nigeria spokesman Feme Fene Codey(ph) says it was never Nigeria's responsibility to arrest Charles Taylor.

FEME FENE CODEY (Nigerian Spokesman): This is a law-abiding country. We do respect that indictment. But it's not our responsibility to respond to that indictment. The responsibility lies fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the Liberian government.

KELEMEN: He says the ball was in Liberia's court to come and get Taylor. That's not how Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice understood the arrangement.

Secretary of State CONDOLEEZZA RICE: There was an understanding that he would be monitored and that he would be, at some point, President Obasanjo said when there was a Liberian government, turned over for prosecution by the court. And we were on course for that. If we are no longer on course for that, then we will have to examine why this happened and have consequences accordingly.

KELEMEN: At a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont had one suggestion for the Bush Administration, don't meet Nigeria's President tomorrow.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): I would urge you to cancel that visit. Cancel that visit until Taylor is in custody of the court where he belongs.

KELEMEN: White House spokesman Scott McClellan would only say that Washington is waiting for Nigeria to explain what happened with Taylor. Up to now relations between Presidents Bush and Obasanjo have been warm. They do have a long list of issues to discuss including security in the oil rich Nigeria delta where two U.S. hostages were freed this week. Steven Morrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says militants have become better organized and a much bigger threat.

STEVEN MORRISON (Center for Strategic and International Studies): This really is an international problem. The theft of oil that sustains the insurgencies is any where from 60 to 300,000 barrels per day. This is grand theft.

KELEMEN: Morrison says the U.S. and Nigeria have made little headway despite their pledges to cooperate in this area, but he says the U.S. has found a good partner in Nigeria when it comes to peace efforts in Darfur Sudan and indeed in Liberia in 2003.

Mr. MORRISON: We wouldn't have gotten Liberia out of its box were Nigeria not prepared to both take Taylor in and take the heat and insert their own forces in as the lead element.

KELEMEN: Morrison says the U.S. was reluctant to have boots on the ground in Liberia while the Nigerians went in in full force. So he says the U.S. is in debt to Nigeria, something President Obasanjo would likely stress if he gets his meeting with President Bush.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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