NAIROBI, Kenya — As Liberian President Charles Taylor arrived in the Ghanaian capital for peace talks with rebels challenging his bloody rule, prosecutors for a United Nations-backed tribunal unsealed a war crimes indictment against him Wednesday.
A joint U.N.-Sierra Leonean court asked Ghanaian authorities to honor an arrest warrant for Taylor, a warlord-turned-president who prosecutors said was responsible for a 10-year campaign that saw tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans raped, killed, maimed or rendered refugees. Prosecutors made the request as Taylor met in Accra, Ghana's capital, with Africa's top leaders, who were hoping to broker a peace deal to stop three years of renewed bloodletting in Liberia, a West African nation settled in the early 1820s by freed American slaves.
Late Wednesday night, Taylor was reported to be heading back to Liberia after top Ghanaian officials insisted that they had not received a formal request for his arrest. Despite a moral duty and political pressure, Ghana was not legally required to arrest Taylor, said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard on Wednesday.
Taylor, a former U.S. jail escapee who worked as a security guard, gas station attendant and truck driver in Boston before returning to wage war in his native Liberia, is widely believed to be responsible for much of the insecurity in several West African countries: Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. Only last month, Ruud Lubbers, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, called for Taylor to be forced out of office, saying he was stoking violence that has created hundreds of thousands of refugees in West Africa.
The special court, created through an international agreement between the United Nations and Sierra Leone, is mandated to try those who bear "the greatest responsibility" for atrocities committed during the country's civil war. U.N. member states are expected to cooperate with the court, but there is no enforceable international legal obligation for them to do so.
David Crane, who was formerly with the Pentagon inspector general's office and is serving as the international court's top prosecutor, waited for Taylor to leave his country before unsealing the indictment issued March 7. In Liberia, Taylor's security forces could be counted on to protect him from any arrest.
Taylor's indictment sparked panic in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, where civilians, apparently fearing a violent power struggle if the president were removed, reportedly rushed home by the thousands as soldiers careened through the streets in jeeps mounted with machine guns.
Crane said he unsealed the indictment Wednesday because "to ensure the legitimacy of these negotiations, it is imperative that the attendees know they are dealing with an indicted war criminal."
The indictment, Crane said in a statement, "raises serious questions about Taylor's suitability to be a guarantor of any deal, let alone a peace agreement."
Earlier Wednesday, it became apparent that the Ghanaian authorities were not willing to arrest Taylor. A top official told BBC radio that the government had not received a formal arrest warrant and would refer it to the country's attorney general if it did. The BBC reported Wednesday night that a Ghanaian military officer accompanied Taylor as he headed for the airport.
"It's their decision to choose what they will do to that indictment," Crane told the BBC in an earlier interview Wednesday. "I'm sure at the end of the day appropriate measures will be taken."
Reed Brody, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch in New York, called Taylor's indictment "an extraordinary event for a sitting head of state."
"From now on, he's going to think twice about traveling, and it shows that the world is becoming an inhospitable place for people like Taylor," Brody said. "It is a real step forward for the principle that no matter who you are, you should have to answer for your atrocities."
John Prendergast, an Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said the indictment against Taylor represented "a gradual stepping up of pressure against" the Liberian president, a move that could eventually lead him to step down.
With several top African leaders -- including Presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria -- looking on at Wednesday's opening ceremony, Taylor announced that he might be willing to leave office at the end of his presidential term. Liberian law, however, does not specify when his term will end.
"If President Taylor is seen as a problem, then I will remove myself," Taylor said.
"I'm doing this because I'm tired of the people dying. I can no longer see this genocide in Liberia," Taylor said, referring to Liberia's own, increasingly fierce 3-year-old civil war, in which he has lost key towns and large swaths of territory to rebels.
Taylor was elected in 1997 after helping wage a seven-year civil war that killed thousands of Liberians.