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Former Liberian President Charles Taylor Goes Into Exile

Aired August 11, 2003 - 12:32   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's August 11, Monday. It's an historic day in Liberia, a day many thought they would never see -- the president, Charles Taylor, stepping down formally, now about -- about to leave the country once and for all.
CNN's Jeff Koinange is in a motorcade. They're driving to the airport, where Charles Taylor is expected to board a plane and fly off to Nigeria.

Give us the latest developments as of this minute -- Jeff.

JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As of this minute, we are just arriving at the airport, Wolf. President Taylor's car is about six vehicles ahead of ours. They are literally pulling up to the airport, and we are right behind.

And I can tell you, the convoy is about 100 cars long, but we are six cars away from him. He's going to go straight to the VIP section. He's going wait for his colleagues -- three other African presidents -- who are here right now.

Whether he's going to get on the plane with them or not, Wolf, we don't know, but the word is he is going to do just that.

Along the way, tens of thousands of Liberians three feet deep, Wolf, waving flags, waving leaves, waving branches, just all wanting to say a final farewell to their former president -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Who are the other presidents, African leaders, who have come to Monrovia to make this possible?

KOINANGE: Well, South African President Thabo Mbeki, you know, he's head of the New Economic Plan for Africa's Development, Ghanaian President John Kufuor, who heads the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, and, of course, Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, who is the chairman of the African Union. They came basically to lend support to their former colleague, and now they're about to escort him onto the apron, Wolf.

They should be -- we've arrived. He's getting out of the vehicle as we speak. They're all rushing into the VIP section. We're going to know in the next few minutes, Wolf, whether he is actually going to board a plane and head out to his new home away from home -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What kind of plane, Jeff, is waiting to take him presumably to Nigeria? KOINANGE: Wolf, there are several planes on the tarmac right now. There is a 737 special, what they call the "Air Force One." President Obasanjo sent it over today with a whole delegation. That's on the tarmac, and there are several other aircraft. President Mbeki came in his own, as did the other presidents.

So, we're going to watch out. We're going to watch to see which aircraft he does get on, if indeed he does do that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We do expect, though, he'll probably get on the Nigerian plane to fly off to Nigeria, is that right?

KOINANGE: That is most probably correct, Wolf. Yes, he will get on the Nigerian one, if he does indeed get on. And it's actually taxiing up to where we are, up to the red carpet, Wolf. The Nigerian plane is actually taxiing as we speak. Forget the camera to turn to where you are, we'll see that the plane is taxiing all the way up to the red carpet, but no one has come out of the VIP part of the plane.

You're about to see those pictures there, Wolf. There's a Nigerian air force one taxiing up...


BLITZER: Yes, we see it, Jeff, on this video phone camera. We see this Nigerian 737 now approaching the red carpet on the tarmac at Monrovia airport. The president, Charles Taylor, now the former president, is inside the VIP lounge. We're expecting he momentarily will emerge, board that this plane and fly off, leave Liberia. And then what, Jeff? What do we anticipate will happen in the hours that follow?

KOINANGE: In the hours that follow, Moses Blah takes his position as president. We already understand that the rebels have said in their own words, the war is over. Also, the West African peacekeepers and American troops, they are consolidating their position, taking up positions around the city. And we also understand from our folks on the ground on the other side of the bridge, those three U.S. naval ships that Barbara Starr was talking about, you can actually see them from onshore, an imposing presence of U.S. force off the coast of Liberia -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And so, do we anticipate that there will be some peace and quiet at least in the short term once Charles Taylor leaves?

KOINANGE: This is the hope of 3.5 million people, Wolf. That's what they've been hoping for, and President Taylor himself said if he is the problem, then he will step out and see if peace does prevail in this war-ravaged country -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What we're seeing is pictures of the tarmac outside the VIP lounge at the Monrovia airport in Liberia. Momentarily, we anticipate that Charles Taylor, the former president who left office, stepped down today, will emerge and will board a Nigerian 737 and fly off, fly off and leave this country under enormous pressure. Other world leaders coming into Monrovia today to facilitate this departure by Charles Taylor. The anticipation, of course, this potentially, Jeff Koinange, could set the stage for a reduction of significant numbers of U.S. forces to assist Nigerian and other peacekeepers in Liberia?

KOINANGE: Wolf, could you repeat that again? It's a little windy here at the airport. I'm sorry.

WOLF: I know. I'm just -- if you can see these pictures, I don't know if you see these pictures, but you know these personnel, these people there a lot better than we do obviously. What are we seeing right now on this video, this video phone picture?

KOINANGE: OK, that's -- yes. That is the entrance of the VIP lounge right there. You can see those officials. Some of them are negotiators in this whole peace process. They have taken so many negotiators from around the region, Wolf. These are some of them waiting right outside that VIP room. And the door is opening right now. OK. They're just -- more of them are pouring out. They are actually waiting for this Nigerian airplane, 737. It's taxiing right around again. The staircase is ready. As you see there, yes, they're starting to come out slowly, and the plane is getting closer and closer to a staircase. So, obviously, someone is about to get on that aircraft, Wolf. I don't know who it, but the speculation is that is actually going to be President Taylor -- Wolf.

BLITZER: When he leaves Liberia, Jeff, will he be leaving by himself? Will he be leaving with his family? Will he be leaving with other senior aides?

KOINANGE: He will be leaving with all of the above, Wolf -- his family, senior aides, his children, those who are still in this country. There will be a whole convoy of folks. The plane will practically be full, Wolf. Many people, his inner circle, going with him -- his aide de camp, his close bodyguards, his secretaries. A lot of those folks that have been with him all along, he's going to take them to his new home away from home, Wolf.

I see the aircraft taxiing to the staircase. You can see that Nigerian Airways 737 about to stop in front of that staircase and the red carpet, waiting to see which VIP is about to board that aircraft -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And this is an aircraft that the president of Nigeria, President Obasanjo sent over personally to facilitate this departure by Charles Taylor. This was an event -- this is an historic event that has been facilitated largely by African leaders with the assistance of the international community, hoping that Charles Taylor's departure could bring some sort of tranquility, some sort of cease-fire in this war that has ravaged that country for so many years.

KOINANGE: That's right, Wolf. And we can just tell you, President Mbeki, the South African president, just arrived, and has just walked into the VIP section. They're waiting for the other two presidents, and then they'll be there for a few moments. And then we should be seeing some movement. Coming back to what you just said, exactly it. They want to see African problems -- African solutions to African problems. That's why they've had the whole ECOWAS movement behind the whole forefront of the West African peacekeeping. Today, we heard that South Africa will also send peacekeepers for the very first time to Monrovia, which is a good sign, a sign that Africans are actually taking their destiny in their hands -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, stand by, Jeff, because I'm going to be coming to, and I want to show our viewers, keep these exclusive pictures -- video phone pictures from the Monrovia airport. You're looking live at a picture of Nigerian 737. That plane, presumably within minutes, will be taking President Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, to Nigeria for exile, hoping that this would set the stage for some sort of peace -- peaceful situation to emerge in that West African nation.

Jeff Koinange, stand by.

Barbara Starr, our Pentagon correspondent.

Barbara -- we know three U.S. warships have been not far from the coast of Liberia for some time. They're getting ominously closer. What does that mean?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what the Navy is really doing is positioning these ships to be within visual range, so the people of Liberia, especially in the capital city of Monrovia, can see a very heavily-armed U.S. presence offshore. By all indications, there are no plans at this moment to put those 2,000 Marines offshore, but simply by having their visual presence it is hoped that this will provide an additional calming influence, if you will, on the people of Liberia, tamp down some of the tensions and the violence that has racked this country.

The Bush administration by all accounts sticking to its plan, its policy that the West African militaries, those nations will take the immediate responsibility for some type of peacekeeping force in Liberia.

Now, to be certain, there are a couple of dozen U.S. troops, of course, at the embassy. They are providing security. And about 10 or so troops providing liaison to these West African military forces. The U.S. goal here for the military is to provide logistics, transportation, supplies -- that kind of thing -- in a liaison fashion. There are some contractors that are working on behalf of the State Department. The U.S. military providing the coordination to make all of that work, and certainly also keeping an intelligence eye on the situation in Liberia, keeping an eye on which forces are where, if anybody makes a sudden move, hopefully providing the intelligence to the West African militaries -- very common sense. This is the kind of capability that the U.S. military has, the kinds of things that they would be expected to do.

But no indication yet from the Pentagon or from the Bush administration that there is any option, any plan at the moment, to put U.S. troops on the ground -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, stand by. Significant developments, historic developments, you're looking live at these exclusive CNN pictures -- video phone pictures from the Monrovia airport, the international airport in Liberia, where we expect momentarily the president of Liberia, now the former president, Charles Taylor, will be emerging from a VIP lounge, together with other African leaders who have come there to encourage him to leave this country once and for all.

A new president has been sworn in, Moses Blah sworn in just within the past few hours.

Jeff Koinange is our man on the scene. Jeff -- tell us what you are seeing and what you are hearing right now.

KOINANGE: Right now, Wolf, everybody is waiting. Everybody is waiting. Nobody knows what's going on. The VIP door is still closed. The presidents -- all three of them -- and the former President Taylor are all in there. The Nigerian plane, you see it right in front of you, the door is open, the staircase is pulled up to the plane. The red carpet has been rolled, and everybody is waiting. The entire world, I'm sure, Wolf, is waiting to see whether President Taylor will follow through on his word. Yes, he has stepped down to see, in his own words, whether he'll leave in a twinkle of an eye.

BLITZER: All right, Jeff, stand by, because we're going to be getting back to you.

Our White House correspondent, Dana Bash, is traveling with the president. He left the Crawford ranch earlier today.

We anticipate -- Dana, do we anticipate some comments from the president, from his senior aides at some point once Charles Taylor leaves Liberia of what the U.S. is going to do next?

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, what the White House is saying, Wolf, is that they're watching, just like everybody else, just as Jeff said. The whole world is watching, and that certainly includes the White House, to see if Charles Taylor actually does leave.

Now, the president, we were just told by a spokesman who briefed reporters on the plane -- on Air Force One on the way to here in Arizona, the president is being briefed constantly about the ever changing situation on the ground in Monrovia. White House officials are in touch with West African leaders, who are also getting a sense of what exactly is going on, on the ground.

But a White House official I spoke to earlier said what the White House has said for weeks and weeks now still stands -- that they are certainly pleased that President Taylor resigned, but he must leave the country. Having him to go into exile has been absolutely a prerequisite for the president to decide to send any U.S. troops to assist in the peacekeeping efforts there. So if, in fact, Charles Taylor does leave, that certainly puts more pressure on the administration, who has been under pressure from many countries around the world, and even the head of the U.N., to assist, to get U.S. troops in to help. And since they have been waiting for Charles Taylor to leave, if he actually does go, that certainly will turn things up a notch as far as the administration is concerned -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, is it a slam dunk? Is it a done deal that if he leaves -- and we anticipate, Dana, he will be leaving within minutes presumably -- that the United States will then send at least some of those 2,000 Marines offshore, off the coast of Liberia into Monrovia and perhaps elsewhere?

BASH: Not a slam dunk at all, Wolf. And as a matter of fact, as Barbara was just saying, there certainly are three warships that are offshore now and they have been for weeks offshore in Liberia. But there is no decision been made at all, and they are certainly assessing what is going on, on the ground. There is a team -- a liaison team, as the White House calls it, on the ground that has been working with West African nations, with ECOMIL (ph), as it is called, to try to figure out exactly what would be needed.

But it is certainly not a slam dunk. They are watching and assessing and trying to figure out just exactly what the situation is on the ground, because sending troops into a chaotic situation is not something that the administration is all that eager to do right now. So, they're watching and waiting, just like we all are.

BLITZER: All right, Dana Bash, presumably officials at the White House -- the traveling White House are watching these live pictures from CNN, like the rest of us -- people around the world watching what's happening at the international airport in Monrovia just outside the Liberian capital.

CNN's Jeff Koinange is on the scene for us.

It looks like there's a bit of activity unfolding, but there is no indication, Jeff, at least as far as I can tell looking at those live pictures, that the former president is about to walk out of that building and board that plane.

Jeff -- we're going to reconnect with Jeff Koinange. Obviously he's having some trouble hearing me.

CNN's Barbara Starr, though, is hopefully not having trouble hearing me.

You're at the Pentagon -- Barbara. I assume a lot of Liberians and others in Africa, now that Charles Taylor is about to leave, are going to be sorely disappointed if the U.S. military doesn't follow through and at least deploy some forces into Liberia following the departure of the Liberian president.

STARR: Well, Wolf, there has indeed been a lot of political pressure on President Bush, on the Pentagon, the Bush administration, to, in fact, do something about all of this and to put troops on the ground. By all accounts, it's not been something the Pentagon has really been enthusiastic about. A very difficult situation, very chaotic, and the U.S. military doesn't like to undertake peacekeeping missions, as they say, unless there is a peace to keep. And until now, there has been no indication that there has been any long-term peace here, if you will. No indication that peace is suddenly coming to Liberia.

Now, the situation today may eventually change that, but the U.S. has been pursuing quite a different military strategy here than simply putting troops on the ground. They are working through contractors hired by international aid organizations to try and facilitate some aid. They are working to pressure to get the port back open, to get roads, the airport functioning again. The belief is getting all of this infrastructure back up and running will facilitate the confidence of international aid workers to go back into Liberia in large numbers and start assisting there. That, they believe, will help bring some peace and stability to the country that they have to get food, water, medical supplies, everything back in. That's the immediate crisis.

Now, the Bush administration so far has been focusing on trying to work with the West African militaries to facilitate all of that. A lot of people may not realize that there are about 500 U.S. troops scattered through a variety of West African countries right now working in liaison teams, working coordination to try and make all of this happen, to try and see what they can do to assist the West African countries, the West African militaries to go into Liberia and, as Jeff said, provide an African solution to this problem, because the belief is that that will be much more readily acceptable in this region.

What you may, in fact, see, though, in the weeks ahead is the U.S. military providing, we are told, some additional training to the West African militaries. These liaison teams that have been spread throughout region have been very quietly working for the last several weeks with the West African militaries, seeing what they can do to give them extra training, extra equipment, a little extra capability, so that when they go into Liberia, they will be fully equipped, fully ready to Nigerian battalions that are working the problem right now in Liberia, are believed to be very capable, very well-trained, pretty well-equipped. They're the vanguard. They're the leading edge of this West African peacekeeping force.

But as the weeks go on, there will be other West African militaries joining this group, who may need a little extra assistance from the U.S. military. So, we may see some training efforts emerge here in the weeks ahead -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, stand by. I just want to remind our viewers what they're looking at -- exclusive CNN pictures, live pictures from Monrovia. This is the VIP lounge at Monrovia's international airport in Liberia. Inside, the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, stepped down earlier today. He's been replaced by the former vice president, and now the president, Moses Blah. The former president is expected to leave momentarily, fly off in a Nigerian 737 that's on the tarmac standing by to take him presumably to Nigeria and exile. It could create a whole new political environment in Liberia, setting the stage for presumably some introduction of U.S. forces, a significant introduction presumably, but there is no final decision on that at this point.

CNN's White House correspondent, Dana Bash, is traveling with President Bush in Arizona right now. She is joining us once again.

How seriously divided, Dana, as far as you can tell, is the administration on what to do next?

BASH: Well, that's a good question. I think a lot of what the answer to what to do next depends on exactly what happens on the ground. You know, they certainly have been waiting and working with West African nations, and that has really taken a while for the West African nations -- ECOWAS, or ECOMIL (ph) as they're called now -- to get up and running, to get a team of peacekeepers on the ground. But there certainly, as Barbara was saying, is reluctance, we know, at the Pentagon to send troops to another hot spot, as they are certainly overstretched around the globe right now.

But there is also a large number of people at the administration, and the president has said it himself, that feel that because there is a special relationship, as they call it, between the United States and Liberia, they need to do something. Liberia, as we have reported over the past few weeks, was founded by former U.S. slaves, and it is certainly a country that has enjoyed good relations with the United States. So, that puts a special kind of pressure on the United States at this time.

BLITZER: All right, I want to bring in Jeff Koinange. He is standing by, our man on the scene.

Finally we got you up, Jeff. Tell our viewers where you are precisely and what you're seeing.

KOINANGE: Wolf, I'm actually literally standing on a staircase, an aircraft staircase, which we actually borrowed from the airport. And right there behind me, Moses was just behind me, that is the VIP lounge right there, where former President Taylor and South African President Thabo Mbeki, Ghanaian President John Kufuor, Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano. They're all in there right now, and they've been there for about 10 minutes or so, Wolf. We're expecting them to come out any moment now.

I can tell you directly ahead of me is a Nigerian aircraft, 737, Boeing 737. It's the official president's aircraft, which he sent here so that possibly, Wolf, possibly pick up former President Taylor, take him to his new home away from home -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A lot of our viewers are not familiar, Jeff, with the background of Charles Taylor. Let's spend a minute or so just reflecting. This is an individual, has been in power for years, but he's got a significant U.S. background. He studied in Boston, worked in Boston. Tell our viewers a little bit about Charles Taylor, as we prepare to see him leave the VIP lounge, board those stairs and fly off on that Nigerian plane, presumably to Nigeria. KOINANGE: Absolutely. Educated in Boston, got a masters degree in economics, in business, came back to Nigeria, worked for former President Samuel Doe in the '80s, and then he fell out with Do and had to flee the country, went back to the States, Wolf, and was actually arrested because former President Doe accused him of embezzling funds.

So, he was arrested, put in prison, spent a year and a half in a Boston jail. And then word has it that he actually broke away from prison, Wolf, broke away one day, made his way back to Liberia, and that was in 1989 when he began his so-called civil war. And slowly from the north of the country, month after month, until he finally got to Monrovia, and the rest is history, Wolf. He became president in 1997, and from then he's been literally fighting a battle with LURD rebels and other rebels who are seeking to unseat him.

And today, barely two weeks after his completion of six years, Wolf, he is no longer president of this country.

BLITZER: Jeff, he's also been indicted for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone. Tell our viewers why? What's he accused of having done?

KOINANGE: Well, Wolf, he's basically accused of funding a rebel force there. They were known as the Revolutionary United Front, or RUN. And these are the folks who went about chopping up arms and chopping off legs.

Oh, Wolf, wait a minute. Here comes President Taylor, Wolf. Here comes President Taylor. He's coming out of the VIP section right now. He's accompanied by his fellow presidents, and he's walking right there in the white outfit, Wolf. You can see him right there.

BLITZER: Any symbolism of the white outfit, the attire that he's wearing?

KOINANGE: That's right. It's just like a white safari suit, Wolf. And people are waving at him. He's surrounded by (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of bodyguards, and also the other presidents, they're right there with him as he walks towards the aircraft.

BLITZER: We're going to watch this history unfold, Jeff, as you tell our viewers what we're seeing with areas in the middle of the screen, you see President Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, walking his way, surrounded by a lot of people. Is the security enormously tight there? Is there concern that there could be someone who would want to get, if you will, Charles Taylor before he actually leaves Liberian soil?

KOINANGE: Absolutely, Wolf. At the very last minute someone could try that. You know, this place is so unpredictable. That's why security is so tight, not just the Liberian, but West African peacekeepers. There are South African special forces. There is so much security, Wolf, here, it's unbelievable.

Now, he's still walking towards the aircraft, Wolf. Excuse me -- you can't see him from we are right now, but you know that whole crowd is heading towards that staircase right there. And President Taylor is right there somewhere in the middle of that crowd. It looks like he's headed towards that aircraft, Wolf.

And family members are actually boarding the back of the plane, Wolf. I can see one of his daughters about to board the aircraft from the back staircase. She's going in there. So, it looks like he will be getting on the aircraft, Wolf, because his family just boarded from the rear staircase -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And if our viewers look closely, they'll see an individual in the middle of their screen wearing a white safari suit, if you will. That's Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, walking, surround by this throng around him. Many of them, of course, are security personnel, many of them trying to protect Charles Taylor, as he boards this awaiting Nigerian 737.

There you see the staircase. He'll be walking up those stairs, together with his entourage, including his family members. And they'll be flying off to Nigeria.

Is that supposedly his final stop -- there he is, he's walking up -- Jeff Koinange?

KOINANGE: That's him, Wolf. There you go. There you go. There you go, Wolf. That's him waving his white handkerchief as usual. The crowd is starting to cheer. Now, you can hear -- there he is, Wolf. He's actually waving. He's actually getting into that aircraft, the 737 courtesy of the Nigerian government. And he has gotten into the aircraft, Wolf. He is actually leaving the country and heading to his new home away from home -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I think a lot of people in Liberia, Jeff, would never have believed this moment would come, and certainly seeing it on live television, these exclusive pictures that we're showing our viewers in North America, indeed around the world, on CNN. This is the evidence that Charles Taylor is actually leaving Liberia, potentially opening up a new chapter, a much more peaceful chapter. We can only hope and pray, that that is, in fact, what awaits the people of Liberia.

I'm sure that the excitement there on the ground at the airport, Jeff, must be palpable?

KOINANGE: Absolutely, Wolf. And remember, he's the one who said he'll be gone in a twinkle of an eye. Well, it wasn't a twinkle, but he kept to his word. He is leaving, finally, as he said he would. Nobody would have believed him. I wouldn't have believed him, and I've known him for a long time, Wolf. It looks like he's finally -- he's lost the fight, Wolf. He's actually lost the fight and is going on.

But, remember, what he said in his speech today. His final words were, "I'll be back" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, when he says, "I'll be back,: is that a threat? Is he threatening to come back? KOINANGE: More like a promise, Wolf. He knows he's so popular, especially in the capital. And he knows he wants the best for his people. But if things don't go right for this country, Wolf, people will sooner or later be wishing for the good old Taylor days. And that will be the biggest strategy for people to wish that he comes back, because they've been through so much. They've been to the very bottom of the barrel. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that they at least got back on their feet, and today, Wolf, today could be the start of that.

BLITZER: All right, Jeff, stand by, because we're going to continue to watch what's happening. I want to give our viewers this important note: Charles Taylor's successor, Moses Blah, will be a guest tonight on "LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES WITH ANDERSON COOPER." That's at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, 4:00 Pacific. You'll want to watch that.


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