Interpol has issued an arrest warrant for former Liberian president Charles Taylor at the request of the UN-backed Special Court in Sierra Leone, but legal experts said it was unlikely to see him dragged out of political asylum in Nigeria.
Interpol (International Criminal Police) issued the warrant on Thursday, citing Taylor's indictment for war crimes in Sierra Leone. But the police organisation said it was up to individual governments to execute the warrant if they considered that it conformed to their own national laws.
A lawyer for Taylor said meanwhile that the request for Taylor to be arrested anywhere in the world would not affect his ability to remain in Nigeria.
"Taylor is in Nigeria. There is no arrangement between the Nigerian government and the Special Court to enable them effect the warrant of arrest," the lawyer, Terrence Terry, told reporters in the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown.
"Whatever has been done at this stage by Interpol is totally illegal and completely out of order," Terry said. "Taylor is legitimately on asylum."
The Interpol warrant for Taylor's arrest issued was "invalid, null, void and has no legal basis whatsoever," he said.
"How do you extradite Taylor to Sierra Leone when there is neither an extradition treaty nor any evidence that the Court has entered into an ad hoc arrangement with Nigeria to get Taylor to come and face the music here?," Terry asked.
The Special Court was set up to try those bearing the greatest responsibility for atrocities committed during Sierra Leone's brutal 1991-2001 civil war. It indicted Taylor earlier this year for his role in arming, financing and manipulating the country's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel movement.
The Nigerian government reacted angrily to Interpol's issue of an arrest warrant for Taylor. Remi Oyo, a spokeswoman for Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, told the French news agency, AFP, that Nigeria would not be pressured into handing him over.
"President Obasanjo has often said that when a democratically elected Liberian government that gives sufficient evidence of crimes committed [makes a case against Taylor], Nigeria will advise him to leave or hand him over for trial," she said.
The Special Court has so far indicted 13 people, of whom two, Foday Sankoh and Sam Bockarie, have died.
Bockarie was the former RUF military commander in Sierra Leone. He subsequently fought for Taylor in Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire, but was shot dead by Taylor's forces in May this year.
Sankoh, the founder and former leader of the RUF, died in Freetown in July after a long illness.
Taylor resigned under international pressure on 11 August after rebels battling to topple him entered Monrovia. He flew to exile in Nigeria on the same day and now lives in the southeastern town of Calabar.
Interpol issued a "Red Notice" for Taylor's arrest on behalf of the Special Court. Saying he was a person who "may be dangerous", it listed offences against Taylor as "crimes against humanity, and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva conventions."
Peter Anderson, spokesman for the Court said: "We are very anxious to have Taylor in Sierra Leone to face the very serious charges against him."
He admitted that the "Red Notice" does not compel any member state to arrest Taylor.
"It however does make it more likely that the day will draw near when Taylor will face the charges against him," Anderson said. "The Red Notice is a symbol of the international community's resolve that Taylor must face the charges against him."
Interpol admitted in a press statement that its member countries comply with their national laws in deciding whether a "Red Notice" represents a valid request for arrest.
"Some countries permit the wanted person to be provisionally arrested pending extradition formalities, while others treat such a notice as a request for information and location of the individual, with no particular legal significance provisions," Interpol said.
"The existence or not of a bilateral extradition treaty, convention or other legal instrument containing provisions on extradition, is an important factor in the decision," it added.
Anderson said: "The charges are not going to go away.....Under International law, charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity don't have a time limit on them; they will exist and continue to exist until Taylor faces the charges in court."