Cook tells Kabbah to deal with rebels

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The Independent Online
PRESSED BY his two biggest foreign supporters yesterday, President Tejan Kabbah, Sierra Leone's elected leader, promised to seek serious negotiations with his enemies in order to end the savage two-year civil war which has reduced his country to ruins.

At a joint meeting here, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and Nigeria's caretaker ruler, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, are understood to have delivered similar messages to President Kabbah: that the war was unwinnable and that a diplomatic solution, however difficult, was the only option.

Although he ruled out an early withdrawal of Nigerian troops from Sierra Leone, General Abubakar said Nigeria wanted to reduce its forces, while increasing the effort for peace.

Mr Cook asked General Abubakar to keep his troops in Sierra Leone and offered aid, Nigerian officials said. "The British made a plea that we should not pull out our troops from Sierra Leone and offered financial assistance," General Abubakar's spokesman said.

Yesterday's encounter came in the aftermath of the New Year offensive by the rebels, led by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) which came within an ace of taking the capital, Freetown. After days of bloody fighting the rebels were pushed back by Ecomog, the mainly Nigerian regional military force, which is all that stands between President Kabbah and certain overthrow.

That crisis, just 10 months after the Sierra Leone President was restored to power by Ecomog, convinced Britain that the rebels cannot be defeated on the battlefield.

Based in the east of the country, the rebels draw support from Liberia and Burkina Faso and control Sierra Leone's diamond trade

Moreover, Nigeria is economically stricken. On the brink of a return to civilian rule under the President-elect, Olusegun Obansanjo, the country is losing patience with an unpopular war that has taken some 900 Nigerian lives and is costing an estimated $1m a day.

During the election campaign, Mr Obansanjo indicated he wanted Nigeria out of Sierra Leone by the time he takes office in May.

Although he has since dropped talk of a specific deadline, diplomats believe that the main reason keeping him there is the need to secure an honourable managed exit, which would preserve the credibility of the region's biggest power.

At least for Mr Cook, his visit here makes a change from the political furore in Britain over the Sandline affair, and alleged clandestine Foreign Office support for arms deliveries to the Kabbah government.

"I only wish 50 per cent of the interest poured into Sandline had been devoted to the real situation in Sierra Leone," Mr Cook said.

Britain has spent pounds 30m over the past year on Sierra Leone, including pounds 10m announced only last week to help to finance Ecomog, train a new Sierra Leone army and encourage the start of peace talks.

"Negotiations have to be part of the solution, but there's no guarantee that they will succeed," Mr Cook said.

The Foreign Secretary is the first leading Western official to meet General Abubakar since the presidential election of February 27, which sealed Nigeria's return to democratic rule. Mr Cook described the visit as a chance for "a fresh start" in dealings with Nigeria, which is to rejoin the Commonwealth in three months.

Nigerian officials hope that Britain will persuade other Western countries to provide badly needed debt relief and financial help at a time when oil prices have sunk to new lows.

Mr Cook said he expected Nigeria to be restored to full membership of the Commonwealth, from which Africa's most populous country was suspended in 1995 for human rights abuses under the late dictator Sani Abacha.

Mr Cook will conclude the four-day trip to West Africa by embarking on a joint mission to Ghana and Ivory Coast with his French counterpart, Hubert Vedrine.

The pair will meet the leaders of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. They will also chair a conference of British and French ambassadors and High Commissioners from around the continent.