Sierra Leone ceasefire may signal end to civil war

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The Independent Online

Diplomatic and military sources in Sierra Leone claim that this weekend's ceasefire between the government and Revolutionary United Front rebels will - if fully implemented - put an end to the country's nine-year-old civil war.

Diplomatic and military sources in Sierra Leone claim that this weekend's ceasefire between the government and Revolutionary United Front rebels will - if fully implemented - put an end to the country's nine-year-old civil war.

The ceasefire, which coincides with the arrival of a Royal Navy task force off Freetown, requires the RUF to demonstrate its compliance within 30 days by disarming and demobilising its forces and by granting the United Nations unfettered access to all areas of the country.

According to Lieutenant Commander Tony Cramp, spokesman for the 400-strong British military training team in Sierra Leone, the ceasefire will force the RUF to allow UN troops to occupy the key diamond-producing areas in the east of the country.

Despite the RUF's claim to be fighting against government corruption and nepotism, control of the diamond fields has long been the true aim of its bloody campaign against its own people.

Signed in Abuja, Nigeria, late on Friday, the ceasefire has surprised many diplomatic observers in the region, particularly as the rebel delegation made no effort to secure the release of the RUF's imprisoned leader, Foday Sankoh.

The deal makes it possible for a compliant RUF to enter a future power-sharing government as outlined in last year's abandoned Lome peace deal.

Despite initial welcomes for the deal, there is still considerable scepticism in Freetown about whether the RUF seriously intends to keep its side of the bargain. Previous peace agreements in 1996 and 1999 were abandoned after the RUF launched renewed offensives against the government and supporting forces from west Africa, principally Nigeria.

Human-rights groups say that tens of thousands of ordinary Sierra Leoneans died as rebel guerrillas targeted civilians, often at random, in retaliation for support of elected president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. Thousands more were mutilated by RUF units that hacked limbs, ears and lips from men, women and children.

Those sceptical of the ceasefire point out that the Abuja delegation excluded some of the party's senior military leaders, and argue that there are signs that the RUF may have split into rival factions. Optimists believe the RUF is responding to recent military setbacks and to increasingly diplomatic and economic pressure on its main foreign backer, Liberian president Charles Taylor.

Western intelligence sources say that guerrilla attacks into neighbouring Guinea were launched by RUF forces under the order of Taylor, in retaliation for earlier attacks into northern Liberia by Liberian dissidents based in Guinea. The Guinean army has been successful in driving back the RUF, which suffered heavy losses.

Lt-Cdr Cramp said that the RUF's apparent climbdown is also motivated by fear of the growing military capability of the Sierra Leone Army, with training, equipment and support from the British military.

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