The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said yesterday that more than 17,000 people fleeing fierce battles between the government army and Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels had arrived in neighbouring Guinea. "The refugees are starving and most say their homes have been burnt down by the rebels," a Guinea interior ministry official said. Refugees were also flooding into the capital, Freetown.
The charity Actionaid yesterday said that it had suspended its operations in the country.
Senior Western sources predict the military government of Captain Valentine Strasser will collapse this week. State radio broadcasted a call to arms, ordering all soldiers to join their units and urging civilians in the capital "to have sticks, stones and machetes to face the phantom enemy".
More than a million people - almost a quarter of the population - are believed to have been displaced, creating the potential for a catastrophe on the scale of Rwanda last year.
"We just don't know what is going to happen next," a Red Cross representative said in Freetown.
"People are suffering terribly. Something more must be done to avert an even greater humanitarian crisis."
Alimay Conteh, a journalist in Freetown, said: "Mass murderers are on the loose and the scale of their crimes staggers the human imagination."
No one knows what will replace the ruling junta or whether there is a coherent rebel movement co-ordinating attacks. The RUF, which has been fighting for four years, has little contact with the outside world and many suspect its leader, Foday Sankoh, is dead or has been replaced. Western analysts suspect the movement has disintegrated and there are hundreds of gangs, killing, raping, mutilating and stealing on the rampage. Many suspect some gangs are government soldiers gone wild.
Foreigners were last night reported to be fleeing amid rumours that the airport at Lungi was under threat. Flights out are fully booked.
Britain has up to 250 citizens in the country and has urged them to leave. At least 16
foreign nationals are missing and may be hostages, including six Britons. As well as British passport holders with right of abode there are hundreds of Lebanese holding British passports without right of entry to Britain.
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