Global Policy Forum

US Warns Liberian Leader


By Douglas Farah and Steven Mufson

Washington Post
July 30, 2000

The United States has warned Liberian President Charles Taylor that if he does not quickly halt his support of rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone, his government will be treated as an international pariah and subjected to unilateral and international sanctions, according to U.S. and Liberian officials.

The unusually blunt warning was delivered by Thomas Pickering, undersecretary of state for political affairs, in a stormy meeting with Taylor in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, on July 17.

Three sources with direct knowledge of the meeting, which lasted for more than an hour, said Pickering told Taylor he had personally reviewed evidence and intelligence linking him to the arming and support of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Taylor heatedly denied the allegations and demanded to be shown the proof, which he was not.

The RUF is one of Africa's most brutal rebel groups, known for hacking off the arms and legs of civilians, systematically raping women and abducting children for use as combatants. Taylor, who led a bloody insurgency of his own in Liberia, has long been accused of arming and training the RUF in exchange for a share of the wealth generated by Sierra Leone's diamond mines under RUF control.

Taylor helped RUF leader Foday Sankoh start the war in Sierra Leone in 1992 after the two met during guerrilla training in Libya in the 1980s. While Taylor acknowledges his historic ties to the RUF, he strongly denies aiding them now and has said he will accept U.N. monitors on the porous Liberia-Sierra Leone border to verify no weapons pass through it.

The growing instability in West Africa and Liberia's role in Sierra Leone have been the focus of international attention since April, when a peace accord signed in July 1999 crumbled. The agreement had granted the rebels a share of government power in exchange for promises to disarm. Despite the presence of more than 8,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops in the country, RUF forces refused to disarm in diamond-rich areas and took 500 U.N. peacekeepers hostage. The captives were freed after Taylor interceded with the RUF; Taylor expected to receive international recognition for his role, but U.S. and British officials in particular said it simply pointed out how much influence Taylor has with the rebels.

While Pickering did not outline specific sanctions, U.S. officials said those under consideration include revoking the U.S. visas of Taylor and senior government officials, greatly reducing American personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia and suspending visa services there, and pushing for U.N. sanctions against Liberia, which is already under an international arms embargo.

Pickering said in an interview this week that the Clinton administration gave Taylor a "very short time period to give him one last chance to contribute positively to end the conflict and stop doing things that were contributing to the conflict and making it worse."

Pickering said the timetable meant "days and weeks, not months," and that he warned Taylor there would be "significant negative consequences to our bilateral relations and, I believe, for Liberia's relations with the entire international community."

Other U.S. officials said the timetable for U.S. sanctions was two or three weeks, enough time for Taylor to meet with senior rebel commanders and political representatives and come up with a proposal to end the war in Sierra Leone. Sources close to the rebels said such a meeting in Monrovia was scheduled for this weekend or later this week. They said senior rebel commanders had been summoned to Monrovia, along with financial backers who deal in diamonds and others who have represented the RUF politically.

Pickering's meeting "appears to have brought some results," said another U.S. official. "We are seeing movement where we saw none before."

Stepping up the pressure, the United States asked the U.N. Security Council on Thursday to approve a special court that would try Sankoh, who was captured by government troops in May, and other RUF commanders and supporters for crimes against humanity. U.S. officials said that if Taylor's aid continued, he, too, could be tried in that court.

Taylor was furious over the tone of the Pickering meeting and blasted back in a nationally broadcast radio and television address July 19, saying Liberia rejected efforts "on the part of any nation to muffle this country, engage in arm-twisting without facts and subdue this nation."

Taylor said that while the United States may be satisfied with the evidence against him, "I have said, 'What you have is a diabolical lie. . . . Even a condemned man deserves his day in court. Bring the evidence. You cannot be the judge and jury at the same time.' "

U.S. sources said the evidence and intelligence on Taylor's involvement includes aerial photography of convoys of trucks carrying weapons and medical supplies to Sierra Leone and electronic intercepts that show Taylor and some of his senior military commanders regularly meeting with senior RUF commanders to coordinate activities. "The evidence," said one Pentagon official, "is overwhelming."

Pickering traveled with several U.S. military officials while he was in West Africa. A Pentagon official said the officials were examining how the United States could help regional armies train and prepare for peacekeeping missions, and that military and logistical training, involving up to 200 U.S. Special Forces troops, was being contemplated for Nigeria, Ghana and Mali.

But sources close to Taylor said the presence of the U.S. military officials at Pickering's meeting with Taylor was an attempt to convey the possibility of a military threat from the United States. A Pentagon official said that was not true--the purpose of the meeting with Taylor was "to lay down the law to him."

Farah reported from Abidjan and Mufson from Washington. Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington contributed to this report.

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