The exiled former Liberian president Charles Taylor has gone missing in Nigeria, just as a prison cell at Sierra Leone's war crimes court was being readied for his imminent arrival.
His disappearance is a major embarrassment for Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who arrives today in Washington where he will have to answer to US critics who have pushed for Taylor's handover for years.
The Nigerian authorities, who have been overseeing Mr Taylor's exile for almost three years, said yesterday that he had disappeared on Monday night from his riverside villa in the south-eastern city of Calabar.
The UN secretary general Kofi Annan said he intended to contact the Nigerian government for answers. "It would be extremely worrying if indeed he had disappeared because the Nigerian government had indicated it will co-operate with his transfer to Liberia and to the court," Mr Annan said.
"If he is not where he normally stays, where is he? Has he been moved elsewhere by the authorities? Did he vanish?"
Mr Taylor sparked a bloody 14-year civil war in Liberia but it is in neighbouring Sierra Leone that he is wanted on 17 counts of crimes against humanity, for backing rebels in return for diamonds during a decade-long war.
The Nigerian authorities issued two statements. The first said that they were investigating whether Mr Taylor had escaped or been abducted, and the second that Mr Obasanjo had ordered the arrest of all security staff guarding Mr Taylor.
Corinne Dufka, the west Africa representative for Human Rights Watch, which just days ago warned of lax security and the danger that Mr Taylor would abscond, said: "This is a disgrace. Not only is he an indicted war criminal, he's also associated with mayhem and murder throughout west Africa."
The news will be a bitter blow for justice campaigners. With Slobodan Milosevic dead, hopes were pinned on putting Mr Taylor in the dock and completing the first trial of a head of state indicted for war crimes committed while in office.
Some victims of Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 war, which left 50,000 people dead and thousands of others missing limbs, lips and ears through mutilations, are now worried that the most-wanted man may have slipped the net once again.
Speaking from Freetown in Sierra Leone, Alhaji Jusu Jarka, who lost both his hands to machete-wielding rebels and now runs the National Amputees Association, asked: "How come he's gone missing all of a sudden? He needs to be brought to justice."
As a former rebel leader, Mr Taylor is well used to the bush and hiding out in difficult terrain. He also accumulated vast wealth during his years in charge of Liberia. And it is not the first time he has evaded being transferred to face criminal charges - in 1985 he escaped from a US jail, some say by sawing through the bars, while he was being detained on a Liberian extradition warrant for embezzling state funds.
The Taylor saga fell back under the spotlight earlier this month when Liberia's new President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf - under pressure from the US, the country's chief donor - formally asked that Mr Taylor be transferred to stand trial.Reuse content