'The people are wild. They are demanding guns'

Crowds of protesters overwhelm UN peace-keepers as diplomats wrangle in New York over how to respond to guerrilla chief
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The Independent Online

Zainab Bangura has been there many times before. For eight years, the woman who runs the Campaign for Good Governance has watched the ebb and flow of horror and violence wash through her country.

Yesterday she was on the streets of Freetown once again as Sierra Leone slipped further and inexorably into chaos.

"The situation is very chaotic," she told The Independent. "We don't know what is going to happen. The people are wild today. The shops are shut, the markets are shut - everyone is marching. But we also heard the sound of shooting."

Although Ms Bangura did not know it at the time, the gunfire that echoed around Freetown yesterday morning was coming from the house of Foday Sankoh, the leader of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF). At least four people were reported killed as United Nations peace-keepers - who were supposed to be protecting the house - were again humiliated and overwhelmed by crowds of demonstrators.

Mr Sankoh is one of the darkest threads running through the complex web of politicians, self-serving thugs and militia leaders that make up the political landscape of Sierra Leone. A former corporal in the army, he now heads the RUF - the murderous force which in 1997 ousted President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.

Although Mr Sankoh was brought into the government earlier this year as part of a deal accompanying a UN-brokered ceasefire, Sierra Leone is no nearer to peace than it has been for the past decade.

In recent weeks, despite Mr Sankoh's claims that he has told his men to observe the deal, RUF units have been marching on Freetown and taking hostage up to 500 soldiers from an international UN peace-keeping force. They have been routinely robbed of their equipment and weapons.

It was in this climate that thousands of marchers diverted from their route to a proposed rally to protest about the RUF yesterday, to descend upon Mr Sankoh's two-storey house, defended by UN soldiers and members of the RUF.

Witnesses said that demonstrators began hurling rocks at the house while the dozens of UN soldiers appeared completely overwhelmed. Eventually RUF members began spraying the crowd with automatic weapons and at least one rocket-propelled grenade. The crowd eventually dispersed.

Abubakarr Sillah, one of the demonstrators, said: "We are on the streets today to show the world that Sankoh is nobody but a monster who wants to kill the people of Sierra Leone." The position in Sierra Leone has become increasingly chaotic over the past week, with clashes between the rebels and the UN forces culminating in about 500 UN troops being taken hostage.

While those clashes have apparently ended, things have become even more confused with the emergence of another militia, headed by Major Johnny Paul Koroma. Major Koroma was the man who took charge of the RUF forces that staged a coup in 1997. Control of Freetown was eventually restored to the government by the West-African peace-keepers of the Nigerian-led Ecomog forces. The British mercenaries Sandline also became involved at that time - initially at the suggestion of Peter Penfold, the British high commissioner.

Yesterday, after the firefight outside Mr Sankoh's house, truckloads of Major Koroma's men could be seen heading towards the property. In recent days he has been on the radio ordering his soldiers to gather in specific spots to help protect the city against RUF troops - the bulk of which are still 40 miles from Freetown.

This is the climate into which British troops are flying - overtly to oversee an evacuation of the 400 to 500 Britons who live in Freetown. Last night an advance party of 200 paratroops from the 1st Battalion had arrived at the city's Lungi airport, which they have secured for the evacuation.

Commanders of the 8,700-strong UN peace-keeping force in Sierra Leone have been trying to reassure the country's population that the situation isunder control. Brigadier General Mohammed Garba, a UN deputy force commander, said: "I want to assure the general public that there is no cause for alarm."

Ms Bangura is not convinced. "The UN are doing nothing. They are standing back and letting things happen. It is very scary."