A notorious mercenary known as "Bob Marley" who is accused of leading massacres in Ivory Coast to help that country's tyrannical leader secure his slipping grip on power is in police custody in his native Liberia, officials said Tuesday.
National Liberian Police Spokesman George Bardu said the self-proclaimed general was arrested several weeks ago along with about 10 of his fighters in the pocket of southeastern Liberia where he went to hide after the fall of his employer, Ivory Coast's strongman Laurent Gbagbo.
Marley was the leader of the mercenaries hired to help Gbagbo, who lost last year's presidential election and then used force to stay in office for five violent months. Early in the conflict, Gbagbo recruited mercenaries from Liberia because he did not trust the regular army whose soldiers defected en masse when troops aiming to install democratically elected president Alassane Ouattara fought their way to the capital.
Liberia National Police Chief Marc Amblard said Marley, whose nom de guerre is a reference to his voluminous dreadlocks, and the other men have been charged with 'mercenarism.'
Nelson Chineh, the magistrate in whose court the men are to face the charge, said they had been transported to Liberia's capital of Monrovia after being initially held in Zwedru.
An official close to the investigation who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press said that Marley was released soon after being arrested. He was re-arrested in late May after Ivorian officials put pressure on their Liberian counterparts.
"The arrest of Bob Marley sends a strong signal, marking a first step towards justice," said Matt Wells, a researcher in the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, and the author of a report on the crimes committed in Ivory Coast. "We credibly implicated him in leading massacres in which a total of more than 100 people were executed."
Besides Human Rights Watch, Marley's role in atrocities in Ivory Coast is documented in the United Nations Commission of Inquiry report released last week.
Among the atrocities attributed to him is a horrific March 25 massacre in Blolequin. Hundreds of civilians had taken cover inside the prefecture building, as the troops fighting to overthrow Gbagbo attempted to take the town, one of the first major cities to fall to Ouattara's soldiers.
Eyewitnesses said Marley ordered his men to seal off the exits, and separate the refugees by ethnicity in order to spare the Guere, an ethnic group known to have voted for Gbagbo in the Nov. 28 election.
"Just before 6 o'clock, armed men broke into the room where we were. It was the Liberian mercenaries ... led by a guy who goes by the name "Bob Marley," said a survivor quoted in a report by Human Rights Watch.
"At the entrance to the prefecture they had a Guere militia guy standing there, who asked each person, one by one, what ethnic group he or she was from ... If you could speak Guere, they led you outside. If you couldn't, they forced you into another direction. ... We were standing outside and they had us wait while they opened fire on everyone who wasn't Guere. I don't know how anyone could have survived. There was so much noise from the firing, from the crying," he said.
Photographs from the scene showed the corpses piled several feet high in a bloodstained hallway. The United Nations estimates at least 50 people were killed, including many children.
Marley's real name is Isaac Thegbo, also spelled Chegbo and Cheabo, according to Police Cmdr. Momolu Massaquoi in Zwedru, the town where he was first detained. Residents in Zwedru told the Associated Press that Marley was a well-known local figure and that for several weeks after Gbagbo's April 11 fall, he was seen driving around town.
Leopold Kahi, the mayor of Blolequin, said that he helped with the operation to identify Marley, traveling from Ivory Coast to Zwedru, where he spent evenings inside a local bar known to be popular with Marley's fighters. When Marley's bodyguard walked in, Kahi offered to buy him a drink, and then used his phone to text the police, he said. The bodyguard led investigators to Marley.
Kahi said that Marley had signed a multiyear contract with Gbagbo, and that the former ruler was relying on Marley and his cohorts to lead a rebel war and reinstall him in office, in the event that Ouattara's army succeeded in toppling him.
He says he saw Marley one last time in captivity, just before he was to be transferred to the Monrovia Central Prison.
"I saw him in the back of a pickup, handcuffed. They had shaved his head. His dreadlocks are gone. They took him to Monrovia," he said.
Associated Press Writer Jonathan Paye-Layleh contributed to this report from Monrovia, Liberia.