Rebels in battle for control of Freetown

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The Independent Online
A DESPERATE battle for the capital of Sierra Leone was raging last night as rebel troops fought their way to within a mile of the centre of Freetown, capturing a main government office building and burning down the city's police station. It was unclear last night who controlled the city, though rebels could be seen moving through the all-but-empty streets, according to witnesses contacted by telephone.

Troops from the Nigerian-led Ecomog peace-keeping force yesterday launched counter-attacks backed by fighter jets.

The rebels' military commander, Sam Bockarie, said his men would agree to a ceasefire if the government released Foday Sankoh, the rebel leader sentenced to death.

Speaking by satellite phone from his hideout, he said: "If Sankoh is released and handed over to us we are ready to cease fire." He claimed President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah - the leader reinstated last year with the help of British mercenaries - had fled Freetown.

There was no independent corroboration of his claim, though there were reports that the city's main prison had been broken into and renegade soldiers freed.

One witness said rebels had also burnt down a police station and the State House, the symbolic seat of power. It was unclear last night how close the rebels were to Hastings airport, Freetown's main transport link with the outside world.

Earlier this week, Ecomog troops fought off a rebel offensive at the airport, which is close to a peace-keeping base. The government last night said that while the rebels had entered parts of the capital its forces were still in control.

Speaking on BBC radio, the Information Minister, Julius Spencer, said a curfew had been imposed and that anyone found on the streets after dark would be shot. "The situation is very serious but it is going to be dealt with," Mr Spencer said. "Apparently this is happening [the invasion of the city] and the rest of the world is standing by and watching."

Britain, Sierra Leone's former colonial ruler, has committed pounds 1m of financial and logistical support for Ecomog, the coalition of West African states fighting in support of President Kabbah.

Last night, a Foreign Office spokesman insisted: "Our involvement will be to provide equipment and logistical support as requested by Ecomog. We are not sending troops or advisers." The Ministry of Defence also said there were no personnel involved in the deal.

President Kabbah was restored to power last year after being ousted by rebels led by Major Johnny Paul Koroma in May 1997.

Efforts to reinstate the President were supported by Sandline, the British mercenaries whose shipment of arms and men breached international sanctions and triggered a crisis at the Foreign Office.

At talks in the Ivory Coast last month, representatives of Sierra Leone, Nigeria, the United States, Britain and Ecomog accused neighbouring Liberia of aiding the rebels. The Liberian President, Charles Taylor, received guerrilla training in Libya with Foday Sankoh, who was sentenced to death in Sierra Leone for treason last October after leading attacks on the government.

Last week, President Taylor admitted that Liberians were fighting in Sierra Leone but denied they had any link with his government.

The presence of the rebels within Freetown represents a marked change in their fortunes after they seemed to have been beaten back by government forces in recent months.