A hint from a British officer yesterday that the rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, could be dead rekindled speculation about his whereabouts and his disappearance a week ago.
"Papay" [daddy], the favoured nickname of the 63-year-old Revolutionary United Front (RUF) leader, was last seen by his Freetown neighbours last Monday, scaling the back wall of his residence and vanishing, dressed, some insist, in womenswear.
Earlier in the day, some 10,000 pro-government demonstrators had marched on his house to protest against new rebel activity and the capture of some 500 United Nations staff, 18 of whom, including a Briton, were allowed to return to their base yesterday.
The march ended in bloodshed and 19 people were shot dead by Mr Sankoh's bodyguards. With bodies strewn around his garden, Mr Sankoh coolly gave an interview to an Associated Press television crew. They left and journalists who called later at the house were met only by women, said to be his 15 "wives", wailing "Papay is out".
Only one source within the UN was able yesterday to give a clue as to what had happened to the rebel leader after the AP interview. "We heard him on the radio on Tuesday and Wednesday, apparently giving orders to his troops. At that time we took him to be in Freetown, not in the bush," said the source.
The UN needs Mr Sankoh, once a photographer in the Sierra Leone army, to try to secure the release of the peace-keepers still held by the RUF. But other than that it is unlikely that the pro-democracy forces have any use for him alive. The Sierra Leone government and Britain, which is masterminding the offensive against the RUF, would like to prove that he is dead. This would amount to a psychological victory over the rebels and boost civilian confidence that the forces of good can conquer Mr Sankoh's brutal bandit army.Reuse content