Ceasefire agreed by Sierra Leone factions

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AFTER MORE than two years of ferocious civil war, the government and rebels in Sierra Leone have agreed to bring in a ceasefire and start negotiations for a permanent settlement to the conflict.

The deal, signed by President Tejan Kabbah and the rebel leader Foday Sankoh in the Togolese capital of Lome on Tuesday, calls for a halt to the fighting next Monday and the opening of peace talks the following day. Simultaneously, prisoners of war will be exchanged, and supply routes reopened for aid convoys.

Last night British diplomats, who have led efforts to secure an agreement, warned that it was only a start - and a precarious one at that. The ceasefire itself could prove stillborn if rebel units in the bush keep on fighting. Nor is there any guarantee that the huge gap between the two sides can be bridged. "It's touch and go," one official said. "The key is whether the rebels, mainly disaffected army people, can be made to feel they have a future in the country."

Although President Kabbah was convincingly elected in 1997, he was almost toppled earlier this year in a rebel offensive, led by the Revolutionary United Front, which came within an ace of capturing the capital, Freetown. After days of bloody street fighting, they were only pushed back by Ecomog, the Nigeria-dominated regional peace-keeping force, upon which President Kabbah depends to cling to power.

Even so, the rebels control most of the country, including the vital diamond mines in the east, and are backed by Liberia and Burkina Faso. That offensive convinced Britain, which has already spent pounds 30m propping up Mr Kabbah, that a ceasefire was the only option in a bloody civil war which was patently unwinnable.

Nigeria too, where the military are about to hand over power to the democratically elected Olusegun Obasanjo, wants out of a conflict that has claimed the lives of almost 1,000 of its soldiers, and costs $1m (pounds 630,000) a day to support.