Liberia election challenger backs return of former warlord

Opposition leader says Charles Taylor would be welcomed home if acquitted of war crimes

Monrovia

The man hoping to defeat Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in today's Liberian elections has said he would welcome former warlord Charles Taylor back into the country and that he could return to politics if acquitted of war crimes by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL).

Winston Tubman, the leader of Liberia's main opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), also warned that he may have trouble controlling his own supporters if the poll goes against them. The presidency will be decided at a runoff next month unless one of the candidates secures more than half of votes cast today.

Mr Tubman, whose coalition includes Mr Taylor's ex-wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, said the former president – identified by the international community as most responsible for the 14 years of war and chaos that ravaged parts of West Africa – remains "innocent until proven guilty" and would have the same rights as other Liberians.

Liberia's second election since the end of the war has been conducted in the shadow of Mr Taylor's war crimes trial at the SCSL where he faces charges including instigating murder, rape and enslavement during the war in neighbouring Sierra Leone that left thousands of people dead. He denies the charges and the court is widely seen to have delayed issuing a verdict in the case until the elections are safely out of the way.

Mr Taylor is still popular with some Liberians and Taylor loyalists have publicly backed the opposition. "He (Charles Taylor) is a Liberian citizen, if he's found not guilty he could come back home," Mr Tubman told The Independent. "Even if we think that some leaders were bad that doesn't mean their supporters are bad."

Speaking before the vote, with tens of thousands of CDC supporters dancing and chanting in a rainstorm outside, the former ambassador to the UN said that Mr Taylor would be free to become a farmer or "re-enter politics".

He refused to rule out a government position for the man accused of war crimes and suggested that his ex-wife would be part of a new administration if he won today's vote: "People like Jewel Taylor are helping us, and our government would stronger if she had a post in it," he said.

The opposition has told its supporters to expect cheating by the ruling party and said it would issue its own count after polls close. Mr Tubman warned that it would be "difficult to calm down" his supporters if they feel aggrieved by the results.

The Harvard-educated diplomat has recruited the country's football hero George Weah as his vice presidential running mate. The former AC Milan forward is mobbed wherever he goes and campaigns with a rowdy entourage dressed in "Weah All Stars" t-shirts, while his would-be boss (a nephew of the country's longest serving president William Tubman) favours a suit and tie and passes almost unnoticed.

"Every Liberian politician wanted to recruit Weah and I did it," he said.

Charles Taylor

Mr Taylor, 63, is the first African ex-ruler to stand trial for war crimes for his role in the war in neighbouring Sierra Leone, where he backed rebels responsible for atrocities. Mr Taylor used to work for the Liberian President Samuel Doe until he was accused in 1983 of embezzlement and fled to the US. He was jailed there but escaped and returned to Africa to launch a rebellion to topple Mr Doe, which left 250,000 dead. Mr Taylor was president for six years from 1997 when he went into exile in Nigeria.

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