Deal raises hopes of end to Sierra Leone carnage

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The Independent Online
It has been one of Africa's most vicious civil wars. But an agreement between the Sierra Leone government and its rebel foes marks a breakthrough in helping to bring peace. After five years, the fighting has claimed 10-15,000 lives and displaced a quarter of the population.

The meeting this week in Ivory Coast between Sierra Leone's new civilian President, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, and the rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, was followed by an announcement of a "definitive ceasefire". The government and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) agreed to meet again in two weeks.

Diplomats in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, are cautiously optimistic the talks represent a crucial step towards resolving the conflict, which has threatened to plunge the country into the kind of chaos seen in neighbouring Liberia.

"Sierra Leoneans are tired of the war," one Western diplomat said. "[But] unless the rebels feel they are being properly looked after by the government, they could restart the war."

The government, brought to power in elections after the overthrow of the military regime of Captain Valentine Strasser in February, has promised the RUF an amnesty if it lays down its weapons. This week's talks were the first to focus on the key issues of disarmament and demobilisation.

Colonel Sankoh's refusal to recognise the new government's legitimacy means the peace process is tenuous. The rebel leader said after the Ivory Coast talks that he had simply met "a group of Sierra Leoneans".

It remains unclear what the rebels expect from the peace negotiations. A movement lacking a clearly defined ideology, the RUF has not presented any demands for involvement in the political life of the country.

The RUF draws its strength from the remote south and east. But unlike many wars in Africa, the conflict has no real ethnic basis.

Launched in 1991 with the backing of Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia, the RUF has waged a campaign of terror. By this time last year, the rebels had advanced into the outskirts of Freetown and villagers only 25 miles from the capital were raided.

The war has been characterised by atrocities on both sides, with severed heads being paraded on sticks in villages and at road blocks. The worst excesses have been perpetrated by the rebels. Arms and feet have been ritually amputated by machetes and the lips of villagers sliced off, or sewn together. As many as 2,000 children were kidnapped by the RUF and made to serve as fighters.

Though one of the world's poorest nations, Sierra Leone is potentially rich. Mineral deposits and diamond mines produce most of the country's foreign earnings. However, rebel attacks forced the closure of many mining operations.