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Guerrillas ready to attack Freetown

Freetown - Rebels have attacked a village 60km (38 miles) from the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, sending a flood of frightened refugees into the city, military sources said yesterday, Reuter reports.

A Revolutionary United Front spokesman said in Ivory Coast that the guerrillas were set to attack. "The hour to take the capital is now," Alimamy Sankoh said. "The people have invited us to enter and we will enter any time from now."

The military sources could not say whether the rebels were still at Mabonto, which they attacked on Sunday. Mr Sankoh said they were holding the village and fighting was continuing.

A Reuter journalist yesterday saw villagers walking along the road with their belongings, and troop reinforcements and artillery heading for the interior.

The sources said the villagers had been frightened by the sound of artillery bombardment in the Occra Hills near Mabonto. The rebels launched their campaign in March 1991 but have stepped up attacks since last year. They are holding 10 foreigners seized since November.

On 23 March, they said they had cancelled a final assault on Freetown planned for that day "because of the heavy civilian casualties this will entail".

A bugle sound from Wilberforce army barracks caused panic in the tense capital yesterday and state radio broadcasted an apology. Shops closed and schools sent children home.

Troops are trying to persuade villagers that the army will protect them but the thousands heading for the capital seem unconvinced. "I live at Newton and I have taken my children as we are threatened with heavy bombardment," said Meuna Kamara, travelling the 32km to Freetown with her baby on her back.