Vultures swoop on corpses filling the streets of devastated Freetown

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The Independent Online
VULTURES PICKED at bodies strewn on the pot-holed streets of central Freetown yesterday as West African troops backing Sierra Leone's government drove rebels from the battered city.

"It's just horrible, there are rotting bodies in the streets, corpses everywhere," said Blanche, a secretary emerging from her house after a week trapped indoors.

Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, retreating eastwards after capturing more than half the capital when they surged through the defences of the Nigerian-led Ecomog forces on 6 January, offered the possibility of at least a lull in the fighting.

Sam Bockarie, the rebel commander, said by satellite telephone yesterday the RUF would start an unconditional seven-day ceasefire on Monday.

Speaking from Abidjan in Ivory Coast, he said: "After that one week, if [rebel leader Foday] Sankoh is not released, we are going to resume our offensive."

Negotiations for a formal ceasefire were being led by the United Nations and West African governments. Mediators awaited the reply of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone to the RUF's key demand - Mr Sankoh's release.

Mr Sankoh's whereabouts were a mystery and the pressure on President Kabbah and the Ecomog intervention force to agree a ceasefire with the rebels may have lessened as the military tide turned.

The rebel retreat left Freetown landmarks riddled with bullet-holes. Some were burnt to the ground. The UN headquarters was all but destroyed by fire and bullets.

With 15,000 men from Nigeria, Ghana and Guinea already serving with Ecomog in Sierra Leone, a senior Ecomog source in Freetown said yesterdaymore reinforcements were expected. He said a crack Nigerian regiment, the 72nd Airborne, was on its way to help to flush out rebel units.

"Last time we made the mistake of not going all the way, this time we're going to finish the job," the source said, referring to events in February 1997 when Ecomog evicted an army junta and restored President Kabbah to power.

Nigeria's government warned on Wednesday that it must be closely involved in any peace initiative - an apparent rebuke to some of the numerous mediators shuttling between the warring parties.

The destruction in central Freetown and a looming humanitarian crisis were the striking legacies of the rebels' scorched-earth retreat and Ecomog's use of warplanes and artillery.

State House, formerly Sierra Leone's presidency, was riddled with bullets and was serving as a shelter for people flocking to the centre in search of food.

The West African force said it had regained control of all parts of the city and it was clear the Nigerian-led force had full command of the centre yesterday. Food stores were beginning to open and residents were buying rice, corned beef and anything edible.

"Life will be back to normal by the weekend," said Colonel S O Ogbeni, of Ecomog's Nigerian contingent. (Reuters)