Sierra Leone rebels march on Freetown

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THE GOVERNMENT of Sierra Leone, restored with the help of British mercenaries, was in increasing danger last night as rebels threatened to attack the capital, Freetown, within days.

Fighting in the former British colony increased yesterday as rebel forces captured a town only 12 miles outside the capital. As tensions rose in the city a mob burnt alive at least two men accused of spying for the rebels.

Later today the British High Commissioner, Sir Peter Penfold, will meet West African heads of state in the Ivory Coast capital, Abidjan, to discuss the crisis and offer Britain's continued support for President Tejan Kabbah. It is understood that while Britain may offer "logistical" support it will not offer any military assistance.

The fight against the rebels is being co-ordinated by the Nigerian-led Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Observer Group (Ecomog). The same coalition, aided by the mercenary firm Sandline, was responsible for restoring President Kabbah to power last February.

Ecomog has been reinforcing its forces in Freetown in anticipation of an attack from the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by Sam Bockarie.

Yesterday Commander Bockarie said: "We are going to march into Freetown on New Year's Day... We have the will and the way.

"When we start shelling the city we won't stop," said Commander Bockarie. "It's too late for talking and listening."

The rebels are believed to have taken control of Waterloo, a town 12 miles from Freetown. There was also heavy fighting yesterday in Makeni, 60 miles away in the centre of the country. Both sides claimed to have taken control of the town.

Ecomog forces said they had killed 50 rebels in bombing raids on RUF positions. An official at Ecomog's headquarters in Freetown said he expected Nigerian planes to go into action again against rebels who had regrouped at the Makeni Teachers College on the southeastern highway to Magburaka.

The college is on the edge of the city and close to Ecomog's main military base in the north.

"Most of the civilians in Makeni and the surrounding area have fled so we are only left face-to-face with the rebels," said the official.

While it was impossible to verify the claims of either side, the presence of rebel troops so close to Freetown indicates a swift reversal in the fortunes of Ecomog, which has been confidently and repeatedly predicting the demise of the RUF for the past 10 months. Mr Bockarie said his forces had killed at least 100 Nigerian troops.

At today's meeting Sir Peter will stress Britain's support of President Kabbah. The two men regularly met after the President was ousted.

"The meeting will attempt to assess the situation. Sir Peter will make clear our support for President Kabbah," said a Foreign Office spokesman.

Sir Peter was partly responsible for the involvement of Sandline in February's counter-coup, when arms and equipment were flown to Sierra Leone in breach of sanctions. Sandline's involvement triggered government inquiries into whether the mercenaries were encouraged to act by British officials. The company declined to comment yesterday.

President Kabbah was driven from power in May 1997 by Lieutenant-Colonel Johnny Koroma, who established a military junta with the RUF.

The President is refusing to talk to the rebels, who are demanding the release of their leader Foday Sankoh - currently imprisoned and appealing against a death sentenceimposed for his role in ousting the President in May 1997.

The Foreign Office said about 50 British nationals remained in Sierra Leone. Some 81 British and other European nationals have been evacuated.