UN forces retreat after town is 'reduced to ashes'

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The small town of Rogberi in central Sierra Leone is in ruins after fighting at the weekend involving rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), who forced United Nations peace-keepers to retreat south.

Yesterday I travelled by helicopter to Lunsar, about 75 miles east of the capital, Freetown, flying over Rogberi to its west. About three-quarters of Rogberi had been reduced to ashes. The buildings left standing had lost their roofs or were otherwise badly damaged.

RUF leaders in Lunsar, which they now control, denied that they had set fire to Rogberi. Many buildings in Lunsar itself were derelict but residents said this was more the result of years of civil war and general neglect than of the past week's events.

Lunsar was still populated but many villages in the area were deserted. The main road from Rogberi south to Masiaka was full of refugees fleeing the area.

Freetown, which the rebels attacked to devastating effect in January 1999 before being repelled, was gripped with panic overnight when a repeat attack seemed imminent.

However, the RUF's local commander in Lunsar, Brigadier General Issam Hassam Sisay, said the rebels had no intention of attacking the capital.

"The RUF will never go to Freetown. The RUF will never attack," he said, adding that the RUF leader Foday Sankoh was angry enough with them already for the fighting that had taken place. General Sisay said the rebels had started moving south towards the capital when they heard radio reports that Sankoh was under house arrest.

General Sisay denied that he held any of the 500 missing UN peace-keepers. However, I saw rebels in Lunsar wearing blue berets and blue helmets that had clearly belonged to UN soldiers. Residents said rebels had been driving around town in UN trucks.

The Revolutionary United Front is a byword for unmitigated terror in a country that has known eight years of the most brutal civil war.

The guerrillas' calling-card is amputation by machete, sometimes double amputations, often offered in a choice of "short arms" or "long arms". The RUF was formed in 1991 by the former television cameraman Foday Sankoh and a small band of Libyan-trained pan-Africanist ideologues.

The pressure group Human Rights Watch said that during the attack on Freetown in January last year the RUF murdered at least 2,000 civilians. Later, in a village near Masiaka, 57 civilians were burnt alive.

Human Rights Watch says that the RUF also committed systematic, widespread sexual violence against women and girls. The rebels planned and launched operations in which they rounded up victims, brought them to rebel command centres and subjected them to individual and gang rape. Girls under 17 and in particular those thought to be virgins were specifically selected. While some were released or escaped, hundreds continued to be held in sexual slavery after being "married" to rebel combatants.

In all, more than 3,000 children and 570 adults were reported as missing after the January 1999 offensive.

Hundreds are thought to have been subjected to hard labour, forcibly recruited into the military or compelled tobecome sexual partners of male combatants.

The RUF also set houses and entire villages on fire as they withdrew. In Freetown blocks, embassies, government buildings, factories, churches, mosques and historical landmarks were set alight; housing authorities registered the destruction of 5,788 homes.

The RUF has also frustrated the delivery of humanitarian relief to the 2.6 million civilians living in areas under rebel control.