Nigerians drive rebels from Freetown

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THE REBEL army that invaded Freetown has been driven into the hills surrounding the Sierra Leone capital, according to the commander of the West African intervention force.

"The operation is almost complete," Cdr Timothy Shelpidi said yesterday in his first briefing on the military position since the rebels launched their attack on Freetown on 6 January. He said there were a few rebels hiding in the shanty towns around the Kissy area, in the east of the city, but he described these as isolated pockets.

Cdr Shelpidi said the intervention force, Ecomog, had suffered only light casualties, while rebel casualties numbered over 1,000 - but the invaders had caused "colossal" damage to parts of Freetown.

As the fighting died down, Sierra Leone's rebels - widely seen as ruthless and with scant popular support - moved a step nearer to political legitimacy when their leader offered a ceasefire in return for his freedom.

The Sierra Leone president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, who is being guarded by Nigerian troops, was due to hear today the conditions of the rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, through a United Nations intermediary. Mr Sankoh is being held in Conakry, capital of neighbouring Guinea.

It was not clear whether formal talks were being proposed by either party to end the civil war. But a senior UN representative suggested yesterday that President Kabbah was unlikely to agree to Mr Sankoh's demand. Mr Sankoh, founder of the Revolutionary United Front, made the demand at talks in Conakry on Tuesday after being flown to Guinea from Freetown where he was being held in jail after his conviction for high treason and murder last October.

In Freetown yesterday, where sporadic gunfire was heard as Ecomog carried out house-to-house searches in the east of the city, two Roman Catholic missionaries were released from captivity.

Ecomog said Maurizio Boa and Giuliano Pini had been used by the rebels as human shields during fighting on Monday. A Vatican spokesman said Ecomog soldiers initially assaulted the Italian priests, believing them to be European mercenaries fighting alongside the rebels. A third Italian priest, Mario Guerra, was still being held by the rebels.

The UN official said that, besides his freedom, Mr Sankoh had asked for official recognition of the RUF, which has been accused by aid officials and civilians of atrocities against unarmed villagers.

Witnesses who fled eastern Freetown said the rebels had killed scores of civilians and taken many hostages - including women and children - during their retreat from the city.

The UN refugee agency warned again yesterday of a possible humanitarian disaster in Freetown because hundreds of thousands of people have been trapped in their homes without water and unable to go outside to get food.