Mr Taylor went missing just as Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo set off for what must now be a difficult visit to Washington.
Mr Obasanjo’s office confirmed that Taylor had left his plush riverside home in the southeastern city of Calabar, where he was living in exile, on Monday night.
The disappearance came just 48 hours after Mr Obasanjo had announced that Liberia was free to “take Taylor into custody” and human rights activists were quick to condemn what they said may be a bid to escape international justice.
Mr Obasanjo’s office said a panel has been given two weeks to investigate “the circumstances of the disappearance … with a view to identifying those responsible” and “ascertain whether he escaped or was abducted.”
The Nigerian leader will now face tough questions in Washington, where the US government said it was “deeply concerned” about Taylor’s vanishing act.
“Right now we’re looking for answers from the Nigerian government about the whereabouts of Charles Taylor,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
“It is the responsibility of the Nigerian government to see that he is conveyed to the special court for Sierra Leone,” he added.
Taylor’s escape was also condemned by the chief prosecutor of the UN-backed war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone, who has accused the warlord of overseeing the massacre, torture, rape and enslavement of thousands of civilians.
“For him now to disappear, on the eve of his transfer, is an affront to justice,” Desmond Da Silva said in a statement
“Taylor is a threat to the peace and security of West Africa. His disappearance now from under the eye of a regional superpower only heightens that threat and puts the whole region on the highest alert,” he warned.
Taylor’s “spiritual adviser” Kilari Anand Paul, an Indian evangelist who claims credit for the then Liberian leader’s 2003 decision to resign, said another country, which he refused to name, had offered to take him.
“Our first priority is to find political asylum for him to stabilise the situation. I made a big mistake to take him to Nigeria,” Mr Paul told AFP in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, where he met government officials.
Police not on duty
Nigerian police spokesman Haz Iwendi said 22 officers who had been supposed to be on duty at the villa had been arrested. “They will be charged with misconduct and dereliction of duty,” he added.
The US-based pressure group Human Rights Watch said in a statement: “Nigeria must immediately search for and take Taylor into custody.
“Taylor’s disappearance on Nigeria’s watch is a disgrace. It brings into question President Obasanjo’s commitment to peace and security for the people of West Africa, the reason he allegedly took Taylor in in the first place.”
In August 2003, Mr Obasanjo invited Taylor to step down as president of Liberia and accept exile in Nigeria in order to allow a 14-year-old civil war to come to an end and to put in place a UN-backed peace process.
Since then he has come under pressure to send Taylor to face charges of ordering murder, torture, pillage and rape in the 1990s in Sierra Leone, where prosecutors have lodged a 17-count indictment alleging crimes against humanity.