Rebel chief Sankoh seized in Sierra Leone

British paras kill four rebels in armed skirmishes

Stripped naked by his captors, Sierra Leone's notorious rebel chief Foday Sankoh was shot and seized by pro-government troops, prompting spontaneous street celebrations in the capital of this war-weary nation.

Sankoh, whose rebel group has killed thousands and terrorised civilians in this impoverished West African nation, was captured early this morning.

Tipped off by civilians, pro-government militiamen confronted Sankoh and his bodyguards. Shots were fired and the rebel leader wounded in the leg. Sankoh was then captured, disrobed and taken to the government's defence headquarters in Freetown.

Witness accounts varied on who fired first, but a pool of blood at the scene bore testimony to the violent seizure of the rebel leader.

At the request of Sierra Leone, a British helicopter flew Sankoh to the nearby Lungi Airport. Britain then transported him to a "secure location," and 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.

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.

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.

"The masses must decide what to do with him," said S.K. Shyllon, an engineer who drove to the compound when he heard the news.

"But I say he is not fit to exist," Shyllon added. "He made the people of this country suffer for nine years."

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."

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.

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

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

In another development today, British troops killed four rebels from the Revolutionary United Front in a firefight at an important road junction 10 miles east of Freetown's airport, according to the British military.

The British forces, who responded after coming under fire, suffered no casualties, officials said.

Also, six Sierra Leone government troops and one U.N. peacekeeper from Nigeria were killed Tuesday night after they were attacked by the rebels in Port Loko, northeast of the capital. Five U.N. peacekeepers were also wounded, U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst said, adding that the rebels withdrew after two hours of shooting.

Sankoh disappeared May 8 when thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of his Freetown home. Sankoh's rebel fighters opened fire on the civilians. Nineteen people were killed.

Since then, there were daily rumors on Sankoh's whereabouts. Some said he had fled to rebel strongholds in the interior, others said he had slipped into neighboring Liberia. There were also reports that he had suffered a heart attack, or was dead.

More than 150 of the captive U.N. peacekeepers were released over the weekend and are expected to rejoin a U.N. force that now numbers more than 9,000.

Charles Taylor, the president of neighboring Liberia, has close ties with the rebels and is trying to negotiate the release of the remaining 350 U.N. captives. Talks between a Liberian delegation and the rebels have been taking place at a rebel base in Sierra Leone.

During their eight-year campaign against the government, the rebels killed tens of thousands of people and mutilated and dismembered many more in a bid to gain power through intimidation.

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