UN warns of famine in Freetown

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The Independent Online
NIGERIAN COMMANDERS yesterday claimed they had secured the most volatile rebel-held quarter of Freetown but aid agencies trying to reach the hungry and injured in the capital of Sierra Leone raised questions about the success of the operation.

In Freetown - without electricity or new supplies of food for more than a week - 30,000 people were reported to have taken refuge in the main football stadium. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation warned of a famine.

Ecomog, the Nigerian-led intervention force defending the government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, said yesterday it had completed the process of flushing out rebels from Kissy, in the east of Freetown.

But in Conakry, the capital of neighbouring Guinea, aid agencies including Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) and members of the British medical aid charity, Merlin, said they felt Ecomog was frustrating their efforts to help victims of the war. Fighting flared nearly two weeks ago, for the third time in 18 months.

A spokesman for MSF in Conakry, where all aid and diplomatic efforts are being co-ordinated said: "We're worried about our staff. Ecomog has taken away their communications equipment because it says the rebels have been using it.

"We are doing everything we can, through the United Nations, to fly in this Friday with medical supplies. But we are not optimistic and are left feeling that Ecomog wants as few witnesses as possible while it clears up," he said.

The Royal Navy frigate HMS Norfolk, which has been moored off Sierra Leone for the last four days, was yesterday due to fly food aid to people gathered in Sika Stephen's Stadium in the relatively safe western area of Freetown.

The British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Sir Peter Penfold, who is currently in Conakry, said he was keen to return to Freetown to pursue British efforts to help the government of President Kabbah.

He said: "The rebels of the Revolutionary United Front [RUF] - which has no ideology and no popular support - have brought their murder to Freetown. I spoke today to an acquaintance in Freetown who had just seen someone whose hands had been cut off."

Sir Peter said Britain and the international community should continue to support President Kabbah for the sake of the people of Sierra leone. "They really believe in democracy. The ordinary people brought Kabbah to power and we should help to keep him there because he has no army of his own."

President Kabbah, elected in 1996, was ousted in a coup the following year. He was returned to power after Ecomog intervened last year. At the time a British company, Sandline International, breached an arms embargo when it supplied pro-Kabbah military with arms.

In the past year, since the arms-to-Africa scandal, RUF forces have strengthened their control of the countryside, due in part to Liberia sending arms, and to the arrival of mercenaries from Burkina Faso and Ukraine. Three weeks ago the RUF entered Freetown, from which Ecomog has attempted to oust them ever since. Yesterday President Kabbah was reportedly in Freetown. Foday Sankoh, the rebel leader, remained under Ecomog guard in Sierra Leone.

Despite a flurry of diplomatic activity spearheaded by the Organisation of African Unity there were no signs in Conakry yesterday of moves towards peace talks.