Sierra Leone aid may be wasted

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INTERNATIONAL charities have warned that the 15 tonnes of British medical supplies that reached Freetown yesterday could fall into the wrong hands because foreign aid workers have been virtually banished from Sierra Leone by the Nigerian army.

The pounds 200,000-worth of aid, as well as two ambulances and surgical supplies, is intended to treat thousands of people who yesterday continued to flock into the centre of the capital, fleeing fighting in the Eastend, Kissy and Wellington areas.

Carrying the last of their belongings or helping injured friends, they told of intensified rebel attacks in the past three days - mutilations, other machete wounds and arson.

The British aid was sent after assessors - two from the Department for International Development and one from the European Commission Humanitarian Office - judged that food was less of a priority than medical equipment.

The aid - the first large-scale international effort since fighting began on 6 January - arrived yesterday at Lungi airport, north of Freetown. Seven Royal Marines and crew from HMS Norfolk, moored off Freetown for the past 10 days, were due to oversee its distribution.

However, the assessment team said it was worried that without the full resources of the Red Cross (ICRC), Care and the volunteer doctors of Medecins Sans Frontieres, the aid might not be used properly.

Last week, the Nigerian-commanded Ecomog force - 15,000 West African "peace enforcement" troops - confiscated radio communications equipment belonging to charities. It accused the ICRC of collaborating with the rebels, but the Red Cross insisted it was standard practice to communicate with both sides. Fearing for the safety of staff, all foreign charities, as well as the United Nations, pulled out non-Sierra Leonean workers.

A spokesman for a leading aid agency in Conakry, the capital of neighbouring Guinea, where most of the charities have based themselves, said yesterday that its relationship with Ecomog was poor.

"The Nigerians want to throw out the agencies in the belief that they will then be able to keep government aid for themselves. We have a terrible relationship with the Nigerians. They have no concept of the ideals that ICRC and others embrace," he said.

It was becoming clear yesterday that the rebels - Liberian-backed bush fighters trying to oust the elected president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah - have either received reinforcements, or were not as roundly ousted from Freetown last week, as Ecomog believed.

On Saturday, rebels shot Sister Aloysius Maria, from Kerala, India - one of six nuns they were holding hostage - before fleeing advancing troops in Freetown.

In three weeks of fighting for control of Freetown, nearly 3,000 bodies have been buried in mass graves, and thousands of corpses are stacked in empty buildings. Kissy, Wellington and parts of the Eastend docks remain no-go areas for volunteers collecting bodies.

The extent of fighting in the rest of Sierra Leone - especially in the diamond-rich areas of the north and east, where virtually every party in the fighting has a stake - is unclear.

The latest conflict - part of an eight-year civil war which has sent half the country's population of four million into exile - began on 6 January when fighters from bases near Liberia entered the capital.