RAF rescues Britons from Sierra Leone

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The Independent Online
THE RAF was racing against time last night to evacuate hundreds of stranded Britons from the embattled west African state of Sierra Leone, amid fears that a rebel assault on the capital might result in the closure of the airport.

Two RAF Hercules jets succeeded on Christmas Eve in airlifting 81 foreign nationals from Freetown, where a rebel offensive against Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's government has escalated in the last few days.

The evacuees, who included 70 Britons and nine Italian Catholic priests, were taken to Dakar, in Senegal, further up the west African coast. They were expected to fly to London last night on an RAF Tristar.

"This is a precautionary measure, because of the deteriorating security situation," said a Foreign Office spokesman. "The situation is volatile. The rebels have a pretty awful history of atrocity and we don't want any of our nationals put at risk."

In New York, the United Nations said on Christmas Eve it was evacuating about one-third of its staff from Freetown to nearby Guinea and ordering all other UN personnel stationed around the country to head for the capital. Washington also told US government personnel to leave the country and advised American citizens to follow.

The panic follows a rebel attack on the town of Waterloo on Wednesday, only 18 miles from Freetown. It was the closest rebel raid to the capital since a Nigerian-led African peacekeeping force restored President Kabbah to power earlier this year.

An army faction toppled President Kabbah in May 1997 and has regrouped outside the capital since the Nigerians forced them out with strong support from Britain last year. The rebels intensified their campaign after their leader, Foday Sankoh, was sentenced to death in Freetown for treason in October.

The rebels are notorious for their vicious attacks on civilians, and for raping, murdering and mutilating their victims.

An MoD spokeswomen said about 300 British nationals were expected to be flown out. Nigeria, the main power involved in the regional peacekeeping force, flew an extra 1,000 troops to Freetown to bolster its army of 5,000 in Sierra Leone.

Some Britons have decided to stay, in spite of the growing security risk, including the High Commissioner and an assistant. After the other Britons are evacuated they may also leave.

Britain insisted the airlift did not mean it was washing its hands of Sierra Leone, a former colony. "The fact that we have evacuated as a precautionary measure doesn't diminish our very strong support for President Kabbah's democratically elected government," the Foreign Office said.