Fresh moves to end war in Sierra Leone

IN ITS desperate search for peace, the elected government of Sierra Leone is offering to share power with rebels who, in a report today, are accused of "some of the worst human rights violations the world has ever seen''.

As Human Rights Watch publishes a report detailing thousands of murders, mutilations, rapes and other brutal war crimes by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the rebel movement's leaders are taking part in talks to end eight years of civil war.

So strong is the RUF's position at the talks in Togo that it yesterday rejected an offer of three cabinet seats in return for peace. The RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, wants the vice-presidency and eight cabinet seats.

The war in Sierra Leone, a small West African country with a democratically elected government, has left up to 50,000 people dead since 1991 and half the country's 4.5 million population displaced. It is largely the result of rival claims to the former British colony's massive mineral wealth.

Human Rights Watch cites Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia as examples of `'the terrible consequences of access to power by those who have committed gross human rights violations''. In its report on the RUF offensive against the capital, Freetown, in January, the New York-based watchdog lists evidence of entire families being gunned down, children having their limbs hacked off with machetes and girls being gang-raped.

Corinne Dufka, a war photographer currently working in Freetown as a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said: "I have interviewed hundreds of people and what has been most shocking has been the systematic nature of the brutality.

"The RUF will tell you that the attacks were acts of indiscipline. In fact, they were often pre-meditated and involved large groups of rebels, including commanders. There were special units, such as the `cut hands unit'," she said.

Yet since the latest ceasefire, on 18 May, a power-sharing arrangement between President Tejan Kabbah and the RUF has emerged as the only means likely to achieve peace. Crucially, President Kabbah has virtually no army and the RUF, backed by the Liberian President, Charles Taylor, controls the diamond-rich Kono district.

But Sierra Leoneans are largely opposed to any power-sharing arrangement. Last Friday, Freetown was brought to a standstill as demonstrators opposed concessions to the rebels. President Kabbah's standing has already been weakened, in some eyes, by his decision to release and negotiate with Mr Sankoh, who was on death row.

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