Freetown in flames as rebels retreat

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The Independent Online
REBEL FORCES fleeing Freetown burnt buildings yesterday as Nigerian- led intervention troops retook control of the Sierra Leone capital after a week of fighting.

Humanitarian organisations warned of a looming disaster as food runs out and diplomatic efforts progress only slowly. Experts said neighbouring Guinea, which has been inundated by refugees from Sierra Leone, is itself on the verge of collapse from the effects of regional instability.

One small sign of hope was the decision by Ecomog, the Nigerian-led intervention force, to fly the detained rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, to Guinea for talks with mediators.

Sierra Leone's ambassador to Guinea said Mr Sankoh - a prisoner in Nigeria and Sierra Leone for the past two years - went straight into talks with West African foreign ministers, the United Nations and the Sierra Leone government. "He is here in Conakry and is in negotiations," the ambassador, Ali Kamara, said by telephone. He added, however, that Mr Sankoh was "not a free man".

Mr Sankoh's transfer abroad was a key demand of the Sierra Leone rebels - fighting under the banner of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) - before they would consider a ceasefire or political talks. He was sentenced to death for treason last October.

The RUF seized eastern and central districts of Freetown on 6 January. Ecomog said on Monday its troops had recaptured many areas but reliable independent news from the battle zone was scarce. Witnesses in Freetown said yesterday that bodies "littered the streets" of the capital and rebels burnt houses and cars as they retreated before Ecomog troops. Thousands of people were reportedly trapped in their houses without water, food or electricity.

A Sierra Leone hotel worker provided the first eyewitness account from the rebel-held east of the city after managing to escape the area. "The rebels are burning and destroying everything in sight as they retreat - cars, buildings, everything," said Josephine Garnem, 25. "We saw lots of bodies in the streets - civilian and military. It was bad, very bad. For several days nothing to eat or drink ... It's getting desperate, people need to go out and get food."

In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said they feared for the civilians trapped by the fighting. A spokesman warned: "A humanitarian disaster is looming in the capital unless some kind of ceasefire is arranged and humanitarian supplies can be brought in."

Freetown's population is believed to have ballooned to about a million because of migration from the countryside since civil war began in the small West African country in 1991. When fighting flared in the capital last week the government ordered people to stay in their homes or be shot as rebels.

The RUF's legal representative, Omrie Golley, speaking from the Ivory Coast capital Abidjan, had said before news of Mr Sankoh's transfer to Guinea that the rebels wanted their chief handed over to the West African mediators. "We want him to be placed in the ministers' moral custody and transferred to a mutually agreed location so talks can begin."

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, Sierra Leone's democratically elected leader, said last week that Mr Sankoh had agreed, from his prison, to an immediate ceasefire. But RUF commanders refused to believe him. Mr Golley said there was no evidence that the call - if made at all - was freely entered into.

A Royal Navy frigate, HMS Norfolk, dispatched to Sierra Leone as a "precautionary measure" last week, was due to dock in Senegal yesterday for re-fuelling and then head to the former British colony.

In London, the Foreign Office announced that the arms embargo which led to a furore last year over shipments to Sierra Leone by the British company, Sandline International, had been lifted. It said a new embargo passed by the United Nations and ratified by Britain allowed fuel and weapons to be shipped to the elected government of President Kabbah.

Struggle For Sierra Leone

15 March 1996: Ahmad Tejan Kabbah elected president in the country's first free elections, after five years of civil war.

May 1997: Kabbah overthrown by the army, flees to Guinea. Junta suspends constitution, bans political parties.

June 1997: Nigerian ship bombs the capital, Freetown. Junta calls for truce. Ecomog, the Nigerian-led intervention force, deploys troops.

October 1997: Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) imposes sanctions. UN imposes oil and arms embargo.

January 1998: Fighting resumes between junta and Ecomog, aided by British mercenary firm Sandline International.

February 1998: Ecomog forces arrive in Freetown. Scandal in UK over Sandline's role.

22 April 1998: Kabbah's civilian regime restored.

4 January 1999: Rebels attack Freetown.

5 January 1999: UK sends pounds 1m aid to anti-rebel forces. Nigerian planes stop rebels entering Freetown.

6 January 1999: Rebels fight their way to within a mile of the centre of Freetown.

7 January 1999 Ecomog troops advance on rebels in Freetown.

10 January 1999 Two Associated Press journalists killed in Freetown.

11 January 1999 Ecowas claims rebels ousted from Freetown.