Coup supporters flood into Freetown

Freetown (AP) - Fighters poured into the capital of Sierra Leone from the countryside yesterday to back army mutineers who overthrew the civilian government, fuelling fears of a bloody battle with Nigerian soldiers backing loyalist troops.

Mutinous troops ousted President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah's civilian government in a bloody coup Sunday - the third in five years - battling Nigerian troops who had been stationed in Freetown to fend off just such an attack.

To bolster its defences against the mutineers, Nigeria sent two boatloads of troops to the port yesterday after Sierra Leone appealed to the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) - a regional military and economic bloc - to restore order.

More than 20 people have died in the capital since mutinous soldiers staged a prison break on Sunday, freeing nine soldiers jailed on suspicion of trying to plot a coup last year. One of them, Major Johnny Paul Koroma, has since declared himself in control of the government.

Major Koroma blamed Mr Kabbah for the recent collapse of a ceasefire with the rebel Revolutionary United Front, which waged a five-year war against the government, and he invited RUF leader Foday Sankoh to join him in running the country.

That could be difficult. Mr Sankoh is being held prisoner in a luxury hotel room in the Nigerian capital of Abuja following his arrest there on gun-running charges in March.

But hundreds of Mr Sankoh's followers appeared to heed Major Koroma's call, pouring into the capital yesterday, toting machine guns and asking directions to the military barracks.

Residents who had been foraging for food fled to their homes at midday when they heard rumours another battle between the Nigerians and mutineers was looming.

Two Lebanese nationals have been shot dead by armed looters who have ransacked homes, shops and aid agencies. The World Food Programme said looters stole 1,650 tons of food and 15 vehicles.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said it would evacuate 21 of its 26 staff in the capital. Several had been robbed by soldiers at gunpoint.