A $2-million bounty approved last week by the U.S. government for the capture of former Liberian President and international war crimes fugitive Charles Taylor comes amid reports that the exiled leader is making persistent efforts to meddle in the affairs of the fragile nation.
The measure specifies that $2 million will be used "for rewards for an indictee of the Special Court in Sierra Leone," which is seen as a clear reference to Taylor. The money would be given to anyone responsible for delivering Taylor to the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone, following the precedent of war criminals captured after the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Rwandan genocide.
The action against the warlord is an indication of Taylor's continuing influence and the fragility of Liberia's nearly 3-month-old peace accord as the West African nation awaits the arrival of 11,500 United Nations peacekeepers in the coming weeks. Those troops will reinforce 4,500 soldiers, many of them Nigerians, already on the ground.
Nigeria, which gave Taylor asylum in August to hasten peace efforts in Liberia and to protect him from a U.N. war crimes indictment for his involvement in a war in Sierra Leone, is one of the United States' major oil suppliers and a key political ally in Africa. Nigerian leaders heightened security around Taylor's villa in the city of Calabar over the weekend and warned that they would not tolerate any breach of territorial integrity, making imminent U.S. military action unlikely.
But the reward, which was signed into law Thursday by President Bush as part of an $87-billion spending bill to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, is a clear shot across the bow for Taylor and his supporters in Liberia. It is also meant to be an inducement for Nigerian officials to turn over Taylor to the war crimes tribunal, said U.S. congressional aides who requested anonymity.
The action comes as U.S. and U.N. officials are expressing frustration over Taylor's efforts over the last few weeks to shape political events in Liberia by telephoning cronies who remain in the country. Leaders in the transitional government have accused him of trying to influence political appointments. There have been allegations as well that Taylor still controls some militiamen.
Last week, a U.N. panel reported that Taylor had stolen tens of millions of dollars from Liberia and had continued to try to loot the country by selling off assets and diverting government funds. For example, the panel said that funds taken from the Liberian International Shipping and Corporate Registry were used to buy real estate. Taylor recently tried to sell off one of those properties, the former Liberian Embassy in South Africa.
The U.N. report also noted that "conflict diamonds" -- gemstones sold to finance Liberia's 14-year civil war -- were still being secreted out of the country despite a web of economic sanctions.
Taylor also has been active on the legal front, sending a lawyer to Freetown, Sierra Leone, last month to challenge his indictment on war crimes charges.
Taylor's moves could exacerbate what is already a tense time for Liberia. The nation's transition leader, businessman Gyude Bryant, sits atop a roiling stew of political animosity and heavily armed rebel and militia factions. Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative to Liberia, Jacques Klein, noted "with great concern and dismay" continuing gun battles between factions, as well as atrocities against civilians in rural areas.
The U.N. Security Council approved a force of 16,000 peacekeepers in Liberia two months ago, but the international community has been slow to commit troops to the effort.
Increasingly, nongovernmental organizations, which were disappointed by the results of the brief U.S. military intervention in Liberia last summer, are calling on the superpower to recommit troops -- or at least to provide logistical support for peacekeepers. Klein, the International Crisis Group and Oxfam have urged the Bush administration to take a more active role in Liberia's transition process. The $2-million reward, originally inserted into the bill by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), might provide some immediate political cover for the administration.
Peacekeeping efforts in Liberia will probably continue for years to come. The U.S. has pledged $445 million for the force and for reconstruction, but delays have hampered the work.
Eventually, the U.N. force plans to disarm Liberia's two main insurgent groups and a motley collection of government militias. This will be extremely difficult, however, without enough peacekeepers to watch the borders of Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Guinea, as many guerrillas have simply floated from one West African war zone to another over the last decade.
Times staff writer Peter G. Gosselin in Washington and wire services contributed to this report.