Sierra Leonean rebels and government troops were fighting for control of a strategic town 35 miles from the country's capital, Freetown, last night as British paratroops completed the first phase of a military airlift of European civilians fleeing the violence.
Rebels loyal to Foday Sankoh, the notorious leader of the Revolutionary United Front, were attempting to take the town of Masiaka in what appears to be a steady advance on Freetown in defiance of a 1999 peace agreement.
The fierce clashes - the first military engagements since last year's ceasefire - shattered the remains of the Lome peace deal and prompted an exodus of terrified people towards the capital. In Freetown, the British evacuation effort brought some calm after frightening scenes on Monday when an attack on Mr Sankoh's home left seven civilians dead
British soldiers rescued citizens from the capital using Chinook helicopters to take them from the Mamy Yoko hotel, which is crowded with those who want to flee the chaos. People queued by the swimming pool, their hastily packed belongings beside them while soldiers helped to carry the frailest civilians on to the aircraft.
In London, a Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said about 320 British, EU and Commonwealth citizens had been evacuated so far. They were flown by helicopter to Sierra Leone's main airport, and from there most had already been taken by airplane to Dakar, the capital of neighbouring Senegal.
A force of about 700 British troops had secured Lungi airport across the bay from Freetown. Around 50 of the Britons are staying in tents at Dakar airport in Senegal, hoping to return if the violence subsides while 78 other people of various nationalities were processed at Lungi, but opted to remain in Sierra Leone, the MoD said.
Britain is under pressure to keep the troops in place to bolster the beleaguered UN peace-keeping mission, up to 500 of whose members have been taken hostage by the rebels they were trying to disarm.
In London, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said that the success of British troops in securing the airport was aiding the UN peace-keeping forces. But he repeated there was no question of them taking on combat responsibilities in support of the UN. "These are not going to become combat troops as part of the UN force," he told the BBC.
Mr Sankoh's whereabouts were unclear after the battle at his home, which lasted hours. Military sources said Mr Sankoh was under the protection of the Sierra Leone army but it was unclear if he had been arrested.
Amid fears for the collapse of the UN peace-keeping mission an emergency summit of leaders of Sierra Leone's West African neighbours is to be held today in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.Reuse content