Rebel leader whose breathtaking brutality brought a nation to its knees

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The Independent Online

As fighting erupted in Freetown yesterday outside the home of Foday Sankoh, the leader of the rebel forces in Sierra Leone, diplomats in New York continued to struggle with a conundrum that is pivotal to the prospects for peace in the country. What should they do with this man whom they know to be a beast?

No one at the United Nations has any doubt that a trial of Mr Sankoh, a former army corporal and television cameraman who took control of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in 1991, would end with his conviction for some of the worst human rights crimes in history. But would such a trial now help Sierra Leone?

Last July's peace accord, which was meant to end nine years of civil war, ensured Mr Sankoh's continued influence on his country. In return for a pledge to disarm, he was given a cabinet position in the new government as well as an amnesty from prosecution for him and his followers.

A senior Western diplomat at the UN said: "Everybody knows the truth that Sankoh is totally to blame for the violence at the moment. In a normal world that would put him beyond the pale."

The crimes committed by soldiers loyal to Mr Sankoh during Sierra Leone's nine years of civil war have been well documented by groups such as Human Rights Watch.

In a brutal quest to suppress opposition in the population, they unleashed a reign of terror in which rebel soldiers routinely hacked limbs from civilians and raped women. Children as young as 10 were forced to fight with the rebel militia. As many as 10,000 children - some given cocaine and scarred by the initials RUF carved into their flesh - were pressed into fighting. Mr Sankoh kept discipline by ordering the execution of any commanders who challenged him.

Reed Brody, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, said: "The unspeakable acts of brutality carried out by Sankoh's men - the systematic mutilation of civilians including children and the elderly - are really the most sickening that the world has witnessed in these atrocity-filled years. Somebody has to stand up to Sankoh. And it had better happen now."

There are no illusions at the UN that Mr Sankoh has utterly disregarded the promises he made last July.

Officials in New York estimate that only about a quarter of the estimated 16,000 rebels under his command have entered UN disarmament camps and handed over their weapons. And most of those have been in areas far fromthe country's diamond mines.

Nor is there any reason to suppose that the RUF has honoured the agreement to suspend mining of diamonds in Sierra Leone until full peace has been restored.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest irony of the July peace accord was the provision giving Mr Sankoh oversight of diamond mining policy.

Some officials in New York believe that it was the prospect of UN peace-keepers finally closing in on the diamond districts that prompted Mr Sankoh to order the violence of the past few days, whichled to the abduction of up to 500 UN peace-keepers. They also see him testing the depth of the resolve of the UN peace-keeping mission.

"The United Nations will stand firm and face him down," a Security Council source insisted. But whether the council will then seek finally to remove Mr Sankoh from the picture entirely and attempt to impose justice on him - perhaps through a court dedicated to exposing the crimes committed in Sierra Leone, or a commission of inquiry - is far less clear.