March 29, 2006

Liberia’s Taylor keeps promise to return

By Daniel Flynn

DAKAR, March 29 - Liberia's former president, Charles
Taylor, whose name became synonymous with child soldiers and
brutal civil war in West Africa, vowed when he left for exile
three years ago: "God willing, I will be back."

But the charismatic former warlord's return on Wednesday to
his war-scarred homeland was brief.

Arrested on arrival at Monrovia airport, Taylor was flown
by helicopter to a court cell in Sierra Leone to face war crime

He was arrested while traveling in a jeep with a trunk full
of money after two nights on the run since fleeing exile in a
luxury villa in Nigeria, sending shockwaves across a region
where many people believed Taylor too powerful to stand trial.

Descended from the freed American slaves who founded
Liberia in the 19th century, Taylor went from humble beginnings
as the son of teacher to become Africa's most wanted war

Known simply as "Pappy" to a generation of child soldiers,
Taylor styled himself as the savior of Africa's oldest republic
despite 14 years of civil war which killed some 250,000 of his

Famed for his charisma, 58-year-old Taylor led prayer
meetings during his presidency dressed in white from head to
toe, using them to publicly deny U.N. allegations of arms
trafficking and diamond smuggling.

"History will be kind to me!" Taylor boasted at his
resignation ceremony in 2003, using a favorite rhetorical
device comparing himself to Jesus Christ.

Imprisoned on Wednesday in a cell behind the barbed wire
and watchtowers of a U.N.-backed court, Taylor has previously
blamed his downfall on the international community's "racist"
attempts to humble Africa's leaders.


Taylor's rise began with a senior job under Liberia's first
military dictator, Samuel Doe, but he was forced to flee to the
United States in 1983 accused of embezzling almost $1 million.

Arrested in Massachusetts, Taylor reportedly escaped after
just over a year by cutting the bars on the cell window with a
hacksaw and scaling the wall using a knotted sheet.

He made his way to Libya, to train alongside other African
dissidents in Muammar Gaddafi's combat camps, where he met the
leader of a subsequent rebel movement in Sierra Leone.

In 1989, Taylor launched a rebellion from neighboring Ivory
Coast to overthrow Doe, who was killed a year later by a rival

The revolt descended into a 14-year conflict during which
Taylor is accused by the U.N.-backed special war crimes court
in Sierra Leone of arming rebels during that country's civil
war in return for diamonds.

Taylor won the 1997 elections by a landslide amid fears of
a return to conflict.

Two years later, the Liberians United for Reconciliation
(LURD) group launched a rebellion against Taylor in northern
Liberia and by 2003 they laid siege to Monrovia. With many
Liberians looking to the United States as a spiritual homeland,
President George W. Bush sent warships to the Gulf of Guinea
and demanded Taylor relinquish power.

By exerting a tight control over Liberia's diamonds, iron
ore and rubber, Taylor amassed a multi-million dollar fortune.

Behind the high walls of his sprawling mansion on a
hillside outside Monrovia, Taylor indulged his passion for
tennis on a private court.

Taylor's business associates have included U.S. TV
evangelist Pat Robertson, who held a gold mining concession in

A report from the Sierra Leone special court's prosecutor
has also accused Taylor, a Baptist lay preacher, of having
sheltered members of al Qaeda sought in connection with 1998
bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.