Released UN troops injured in gun battle

Sierra Leone: American envoy Jesse Jackson in volte-face over words of support for rebel leader Sankoh as forty peace-keepers are freed

Up to 40 of the 139 captive UN peace-keepers who were freed last night have bullet wounds sustained during a gun battle with Sierra Leonean rebels.

A further 347 United Nations hostages are reported to have been split into groups of four or five by their rebel captors. The UN has appealed to the British-backed Sierra Leone army to ease back its attacks on the rebels as it tries to negotiate the release of the remaining hostages.

The revelation is the latest blow to the beleaguered UN mission in Sierra Leone, whose credibility has been restored by British troops in Freetown in the past week. An American peace mission was in doubt last night, after the envoy, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, praised rebel leader Foday Sankoh before reversing his stance when his comments went down badly in West African capitals.

Mr Jackson was originally scheduled to leave the United States yesterday as President Bill Clinton's special envoy, starting a round of shuttle diplomacy in Liberia today. The US envoy's volte-face came after a late night conversation between Tony Blair and President Clinton to discuss the build up of UN forces.

The Liberian President Charles Taylor, who helped negotiate the peace-keepers' release, told a news conference in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, that the injured men had been hurt in a clash with rebels before their capture, following a dispute over disarmament under a 1999 peace deal.

Referring to the troops who were flown to safety in Monrovia yesterday, Mr Taylor said: "between 30 and 40 of the personnel are wounded. Some are in a serious condition."

Among the 350 UN troops still being held by the Revolutionary United Front are about 100 Zambian soldiers whose whereabouts remain a mystery to the UN.

Warnings against provoking the RUF were delivered by Mr Taylor, and by the UN special representative to Sierra Leone, Oluyemi Adeniji. Mr Taylor continues to have considerable influence on the rebels and Mr Adenjii has been in Monrovia for several days where he has maintained almost constant contact with President Taylor.

The UN Security Council is due this morning to begin what is likely to be a long process of re-appraising its policy on Sierra Leone. A report on the crisis from the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, is expected to ask for some increase in the numbers of UN peace-keepers in the country.

Pressure is also rising on the UN formally to revoke its relationship with Mr Sankoh, the RUF chief who disappeared during an assault on his Freetown home 10 days ago. Under the Lomé peace accord signed last July, Mr Sankoh was given a cabinet position and immunity for crimes committed during eight years of civil war.

Bernard Miyet, the UN undersecretary general, said: "There have been discrepancies more than once between Sankoh's words and deeds and this is a problem."

Mr Miyet, who recently returned from Sierra Leone to New York to advise the Council, said it was time for the UN to reassess its relationship with Mr Sankoh, whose "credibility has taken a blow".

Last week Mr Jackson suggested that it might be appropriate to fund the RUF, which he compared to the ANC in South Africa. On Monday, vigorously back-pedalling, he said: "I'd like to make it clear that Foday Sankoh and the RUF alone are responsible for the current crisis in Sierra Leone."

Diplomats expect the Security Council to be receptive to proposals for some lifting of the current ceiling of 11,100 soldiers for the UN force in Sierra Leone. Most in the UN are keen now that all foreign troops in the country should operate under UN command, wearing the blue UN beret.

An exception, at least in the short term, will be the status of the British paratroopers.