UN attack prompts peace call from rebel leader

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The leader of one of the main rebel factions in the Sierra Leone civil war is suing for peace.

The leader of one of the main rebel factions in the Sierra Leone civil war is suing for peace.

Just two days after UN forces rescued 200 hostages, the country's president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, told The Independent that Sam Bockarie, the deputy leader of the Revolutionary United Front, had called to propose peace talks. The satellite phone call came 48 hours after the SAS-guided operation, which inflicted heavy casualties on the rebel forces.

The overture comes as the UN at last appears to have gone on the offensive against the rebels and while the British Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, is in Sierra Leone pledging further military help to the Kabbah government. Mr Hoon said the UN action had "enormously strengthened" President Kabbah in his negotiations.

Speaking at his presidential lodge, the President said: I have been speaking to Sam Bockarie. He telephoned me last [Monday] night. He said he was very enthusiastic to come back home and join the peace process and convince his colleagues to join the peace process."

Mr Bockarie fell out with Foday Sankoh, the now jailed RUF leader, "because he did not trust him," the President said.

A senior Sierra Leone government source said: "Bockarie could only have made the approach with the permission of Charles Taylor," the Liberian president who arms the rebels in return for shipments of diamonds. "It looks like they are testing the water, and we are certainly not dismissing this out of hand."

The self-styled "General" Bockarie, a former disco dancer nicknamed "Mosquito", has claimed he is not responsible for the recent excesses of the RUF. But forces loyal to him carried out killings and atrocities in the civil war, and government figures say they will wait to see where his protestations of peace lead.

One theory is that Mr Bockarie may offer to broke a ceasefire if the rebels are allowed to keep control of the diamond mines they already hold - a scenario the Sierra Leone government maintains it will not tolerate.

President Taylor is the main beneficiary of the diamonds mined by the RUF. The rebel movement will find it virtually impossible to operate without his support.

Mr Hoon said he would give President Kabbah full backing in any negotiations he carries out with the RUF. He added that the president would be helped in this if he "carried a big stick" and Britain would ensure that he "gets the big stick".

The British military involvement in Sierra Leone appears more and more permanent, with living accommodation being built for 90 trainers who will be here to restructure the government army over the next three years, at a total cost of about £24m.

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