Leading article: A symbolic moment for Africa

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The Independent Online

He has been arrested on war crimes charges which relate specifically to his sponsorship of the rebellion in Sierra Leone by a group called the RUF, a force that slaughtered and raped thousands, specialising in hacking their victims' limbs off and enlisting child soldiers to carry out atrocities. With Taylor in the dock the victims of Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war - and those throughout the region - have at last come a step closer to seeing justice done.

But this week's events also raise the possibility that the era in which Africa's disgraced leaders could rely on the protection of fellow African presidents might be coming to an end. It is significant that Nigeria, which had been sheltering Taylor for three years, finally bowed to international pressure to arrest him as he tried to slip over the border into Cameroon.

Charles Taylor is not the first African leader to have presided over appalling acts of savagery and brutality. But he was the first sitting African head of state to be indicted for war crimes before an international court. His arrest means that serving tyrants such as Robert Mugabe will be forced to consider the implications, while other leaders across the continent will know they may one day face the force of international justice if they refuse to promote the rule of law.

Much depends on how the trial is conducted. If security concerns require its transfer to The Hague, Western governments should do all in their power to facilitate the process. Nor should a shortage of funds for witness protection be allowed to thwart a successful prosecution. It is vital that the lessons learned in prosecuting other indicted war crimes suspects such as Slobodan Milosevic be heeded. It would be a terrible betrayal if history were not able to record this week as a significant step forward in the blood-soaked recent history of Africa.