British troops kill Sierra Leone rebels

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British troops in Sierra Leone have killed three rebels from the Revolutionary United Front in a gun battle at an important road junction 10 miles east of Freetown airport, according to a statement released by Tony Blair's office.

The British forces, who responded after coming under fire, suffered no casualties, though one Sierra Leonean woman was injured, the statement said, it also added that the clash "was all within the robust rules of engagement."

In another development, Sierra Leone's notorious rebel chief Foday Sankoh was shot and seized by pro-government troops, prompting spontaneous street celebrations in the country's capital.

Sankoh, whose rebel group has killed thousands and terrorized civilians, was captured early on Wednesday next door to his home in Freetown - the spot where he disappeared nine days earlier, witnesses said.

Tipped off by civilians, pro-government militiamen confronted Sankoh and his bodyguards, sparking a brief gun battle that left the rebel leader wounded in the leg. Sankoh was then captured, disrobed and taken to the government's defense headquarters in Freetown, the witnesses said.

A photo taken by one witness showed Sankoh crammed into a four-wheel drive vehicle, with one captor holding him by the neck and another gesturing toward the rebel leader as if showing off a prize.

At the request of Sierra Leone, a British helicopter flew Sankoh to the nearby Lungi Airport. Britain then transported Sankoh to a "secure location," and he was being held by the Sierra Leone authorities, said British Lt Cmdr Tony Cramp, spokesman for the British forces in the country.

The British troops are in Sierra Leone to assist with the troubled U.N. peacekeeping mission.

As word of Sankoh's capture spread through the capital, civilians rushed into the streets to rejoice. Government soldiers armed with rocket launchers and automatic rifles chased away the crowd and maintained a heavy presence in front of the defense compound.

Asked what would happen to Sankoh, government spokesman Septimus Kai Kai said: "A lot of these things are being sorted out now. Our main concern now is that we can ... bring peace to our country."

It was not immediately clear how the rebels would respond to Sankoh's capture. The Revolutionary United Front is still holding 350 U.N. peacekeepers captive, and could potentially use them as a bargaining chip in exchange for Sankoh.

Sankoh was previously captured in 1997, and subsequently convicted of treason and sentenced to death the following year. His rebels responded by launching an offensive that culminated with an invasion of Freetown in January 1999. They were driven out of the city by West African troops several weeks later.

He was released to signed a peace deal ending the civil war in July 1999, receiving amnesty and a post in the government.

The fragile peace accord unraveled this month when Sankoh's rebels seized 500 U.N. peacekeepers and attacked U.N. and pro-government forces.

Sankoh disappeared last week when thousands of demonstrators opposed to him gathered in front of his home in Freetown. Sankoh's rebel fighters opened fire on the civilians. Nineteen people were killed.