Kidnapping puts UN Sierra Leone mission in doubt

Click to follow

Negotiations were taking place last night to secure the release of 70 UN peace-keepers and observers taken hostage by rebels in Sierra Leone. A senior British army officer, whose identity has not yet been made public, is among the captives, but is "safe and well", according to ministers in London.

The capture and the killings on Wednesday of four UN soldiers has cast doubt over the future of the most ambitious peace-keeping project in the world. The attacks have revived memories of failed UN missions in Somalia and Rwanda, forcing political leaders to face up to the prospect that peace-keepers may be unable to police either the fragile peace process in this chaotic west African country or an eventual peace accord in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, called for the UN force in Sierra Leone to be increased quickly to its full strength of 11,000 saying he backed "the rapid deployment of the remaining UN forces in order that we can get the situation under control." Earlier a UN spokesman revised the estimated death toll from seven killed to four missing and presumed dead. The number ofpeace-keepers, observers and civilians taken hostage rose however from 50 to at least 69.

Twenty three members of the UN mission were surrounded in the town of Kuiva a spokeswoman said.

UN forces have encircled the Freetown home of Foday Sankoh, the former rebel leader who is now Vice-President of Sierra Leone. Mr Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front rebels are accused of the attacks, triggered by a dispute with the UN over disarmament in the central towns of Makeni and Magburaka earlier this week.

Seven RUF rebels are also believed to have died.

The Sierra Leone disarmament débâcle is one of the worst blows dealt to African conflict resolution efforts since the killing of 18 American soldiers in Somalia in 1993, which led United States troops to withdraw from that country. And it comes at a time when the UN was negotiating with Security Council members and African countries to beef up to 11,100 its currently 8,500-strong Unamsil (UN Mission in Sierra Leone) force in the country.

Unamsil's task is to police last year's Lomé peace deal signed last July, which halted eight years of bloody civil war in Sierra Leone in which tens of thousands of people died. It is also to oversee disarmament and demobilisation of some 45,000 fighters before elections planned for early next year. Disarmament is only part complete, with rebels still firmly entrenched in several areas.

As this week's drama unfolded, so did confusion over what exactly is going on in an impoverished and anarchic country whose peace accord has repeatedly been dishonoured by rebel groups.

Even Mr Sankoh appears not to know what is going on, both ordering his fighters to free UN peace keepers on Freetown's Democracy Radio - "in the interests of peace and stability and my commitment to peace" - and denouncing as "fabrication" claims that his forces are holding anybody: "This is something I really have no knowledge of", he told BBC Radio 4.

He has also accused Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, of taking part in an "international conspiracy" with the Sierra Leonean President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah to destroy the reputation of the RUF and keep him out of power.

Mr Sankoh admits that the RUF was involved in the firefight in which peace-keepers died, but claims it was provoked by UN troops opening fire on RUF soldiers after trying forcibly to disarm them.

The UN says clashes began on Monday after UN troops refused to turn over to RUF soldiers 10 former rebels who handed in their weapons to a UN run disarmament centre. About 100 RUF fighters then surrounded the camp and fired shots in the air before capturing some 21 UN troops. An additional 28 peace-keepers and civilians were seized on Tuesday in the eastern town of Kailahun, and others are being held in Magburaka. The attacks took place as the last of the Ecomog intervention force left Sierra Leone, making way for Unamsil. Further deaths of UN personnel could lead countries to pull their forces out of Sierra Leone.