Former Liberian President Charles Taylor missing
ABUJA, Mar 28: Former Liberian president Charles Taylor, wanted for war crimes by a court in Sierra Leone, has disappeared from his residence in southeastern Nigeria, the Nigerian presidency said on today.
The disappearance appeared to be a major embarrassment for Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was due to fly on Tuesday to the United States, because Washington has been pressing for Taylor's handover for years.
Taylor had lived in Nigeria since 2003, when he stepped down as part of a deal to end Liberia's 14-year civil war that spilled over into nearby countries.
''President Olusegun Obasanjo has approved the constitution of a panel of enquiry to look into the circumstances of the disappearance ... of Mr Charles Taylor ... from his residence in Calabar,'' the presidency said in a statement.
Taylor disappeared last night, it said, two days after Nigeria said Liberia was free to take him into its custody.
Nigeria and Liberia were at odds about where he should go and confusion has reigned about his whereabouts since the Nigerian announcement.
In Sierra Leone, Taylor stands accused of supporting rebels notorious for hacking off the limbs of civilians, in exchange for diamonds to finance the Liberian conflict.
The two conflicts claimed an estimated 300,000 lives and spawned a generation of child soldiers.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he intended to contact the Nigerian authorities for more information on what happened to Taylor.
''It would be extremely worrying if indeed he had disappeared because the Nigerian government had indicated it will cooperate with his transfer to Liberia and to the court,'' Annan told reporters at UN headquarters in New York.
''If he is not where he normally stays, where is he? Has he been moved elsewhere by the authorities? Did he vanish? These are facts that we need to ascertain,'' Annan said.
Confusion over what had happened to Taylor was compounded by the way in which the Nigerian presidency communicated. It put out two separate news releases from different officials, the latest in a series of statements about Taylor that raised as many questions as they answered.
''This really makes you wonder, what is the Nigerians' game?'' said a Western diplomat in Abuja.
Nigerian police said 22 officers detailed to guard Taylor were arrested for misconduct and dereliction of duty.
FEAR OF TAYLOR'S RETURN
Taylor's spiritual adviser Kilari Anand Paul, an evangelical preacher who played a major part in persuading Taylor to leave Liberia in 2003, said he had probably gone back to his country.
''I am worried that he will go back to Liberia and start fighting again. I suspect he is already in Liberia,'' said Paul.
Many in both Liberia and Sierra Leone fear that the return of Taylor, who is believed to be rich and still commands some grassroots support, could undermine a fragile peace.
''The disappearance of Mr Taylor from Nigeria poses a serious security threat to the incumbent president and the entire citizenry of Liberia,'' said Karr Dahnson, a security guard in the Liberian capital Monrovia.
Newly-elected Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, under pressure from Washington, asked Nigeria to hand over Taylor to stand trial in Sierra Leone.
Nigeria, which has argued for years it would only transfer Taylor to an elected Liberian government, replied that Liberia was free to take him into its custody. It gave no details of when and how the transfer was supposed to take place.
The prosecutor of the Sierra Leone court called for Taylor's arrest. Nigeria did not respond.
Amnesty International called for an international inquiry to investigate how Taylor had disappeared and said any country that found him should hand him over to Sierra Leone.
''Allowing Charles Taylor to escape trial would be a human rights scandal and a slap in the face for the thousands of victims of ... murders, amputations, rapes, sexual slavery and the use of child soldiers,'' the lobby group said in a statement.
Security was beefed up around Taylor's Calabar residence on Tuesday, and local authorities declined to comment on his whereabouts.
A truck-load of riot police arrived at the riverside villa, and a dozen armed guards were at the gate.