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Charles Taylor: A wanted man

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Taylor was Liberia's president from 1997 until he was forced from office in 2003.

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Charles Taylor
Liberia
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(CNN) -- Liberian President Charles Ghankay Taylor -- known as "Pappy" to his band of child soldiers -- is a wanted man in West Africa.

Taylor, who has been accused by human rights groups of masterminding regional conflicts, was Liberia's president from 1997 until he was forced from office in 2003.

He was indicted in June of that year by a U.N.-backed war crimes court in neighboring Sierra Leone on 17 counts of war crimes after accusing him of supporting rebels in that country who were committing atrocities against civilians.

The former warlord has said he is willing to go before a war crimes tribunal at The Hague, Netherlands, but did not want to be tried in Sierra Leone.

As many as 200,000 people were killed in the war waged by Sierra Leone's vicious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels from 1991 until peace was officially declared in January 2002.

According to Amnesty International, Sierra Leone's civil war "was characterized by some of the worst abuses known: widespread deliberate and arbitrary killings of civilians, torture, including rape and deliberate amputation of limbs, and abduction and forced recruitment of large numbers of people, including children."

Liberia has been under U.N. sanctions since 2001 because of the government's alleged support of the rebels and reputed trafficking in diamonds from rebel-held areas in Sierra Leone.

Rebels of the group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy attacked Liberian government forces in an attempt to oust Taylor. The insurgents and their allies hold about 60 percent of the country.

Meanwhile, most of the country's 3.3 million people are starving or sick, and a third are homeless, the result of almost perpetual war since 1989.

On July 6, 2003 Taylor accepted an offer of asylum from Nigeria's president, and on August 11 he stepped down as president, handed over power to Vice President Moses Blah and left for Nigeria.

A special prosecutor with the special court in Sierra Leone said offering Taylor asylum from the war crimes charges would violate international law, but one senior U.S. official said the issue of whether Taylor should escape prosecution "is really on the back burner."

Taylor was born in 1948 -- the third of 15 children of Americo-Liberian parents, descendants of the freed American slaves who established the Liberian republic in the 19th century.

His father sent him to the United States, where he obtained a degree in economics from Bentley College in Massachusetts.

He became involved in radical Liberian student politics. Influenced by Marxist and Pan-African ideas, he once advocated burning down the Liberian Embassy in Washington. He earned cash in his spare time working on a production line at a toy factory.

He became a teacher and was part of dictator Samuel Doe's government in 1980 before being exiled to the United States.

In the United States he was jailed for allegedly stealing $900,000 in Liberian government funds -- only to escape from a Massachusetts prison, along with four petty criminals, in 1985 after a year in captivity.

In 1989, he returned to West Africa and launched a revolt from the Ivory Coast against Doe, an ethnic Krahn who had taken power in a military coup.

Taylor's campaign turned into an ethnic conflict, with seven factions fighting for control of the country and its resources -- particularly iron ore, timber and rubber.

Taylor's forces included children, often dressed in costumes and blond wigs. Often under the influence of drugs, they were noted for their brutality.

An estimated 200,000 people were killed in that phase of the war, and more than 1 million were forced from their homes.

The United Nations, United States, African Union and Economic Community of West African States mediated a peace of sorts in 1996.

Taylor's faction emerged from the fighting as the dominant force, and when special elections were held in 1997, he and his National Patriotic Party won an overwhelming victory.

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