Jungle rebels sow panic in Sierra Leone Sierra Leone war

David Orr in Freetown reports on the agony of a civil war now in its fourth year
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There is a sense of menace in the lush tropical vegetation pressing in on Songo, a village 30 miles from Freetown. Rebels sprang from the bush 10 days ago, attacking this collection of mud walls, thatched roofs and corrugated iron sheeting. Now it is all but deserted.

Adama Koroma was lucky to escape with her life. She and other villagers were having breakfast when Revolutionary United Front (RUF) guerrillas struck, spraying bullets before them. With her 10-month-old baby strapped to her back, she ran into her house, followed by a neighbour. As they lay cowering, two uniformed youths entered the hut. She begged them not to kill her.

One pointed his automatic rifle at her groin. He shot her in the genitals from point-blank range. Next, they turned their attentions to her neighbour. They shot him in the chest, then gouged out his eyes. While this atrocity was being committed, Mrs Koroma crawled out to hide in the bush, where she was found by her husband the next day. The other three patients in her ward at the Connaught Hospital in Sierra Leone's capital are also victims of the civil war, in its fourth hopeless year.

The country, one of the world's poorest, is following neighbouring Liberia into chaos and disintegration. Rebels have stepped up their campaign in recent months, taking the war to Freetown's outskirts. After the Songo raid, they attacked Newton, 24 miles from the capital. Troops guarding that village and its few remaining inhabitants say the enemy is in the bush, a short distance away.

It is feared the airport at Lungi, separated from the Freetown peninsula by a wide lagoon, could soon be a target.

All main towns are in government hands but the hinterland is at the mercy of the RUF, its roads unsafe. Mineral production, which accounted for two-thirds of foreign earnings, has been paralysed by rebel actions and agricultural exports halted. The only diamonds being produced are smuggled out of the country by soldiers and dealers.

Freetown, founded by British philanthropists as a colony to resettle black slaves late in the eighteenth century, has swollen with the influx of terrified people from the interior. There are now more than a million inhabitants in this once sleepy town which, with its rickety wooden-frame houses and ubiquitous reggae music, belongs as much to the Caribbean as to the humid, sweltering climes of West Africa. Surrounding districts with their proudly British names - Hastings, Leicester, Gloucester - are filling up with the displaced. In Waterloo, outside Freetown, the roadside is thronged with refugees who have fled a nearby camp in panic.

The military government, the National Provisional Ruling council (NPRC), has increased the army to about 13,000 troops but seems powerless to contain the rebel advance. Its leader, Captain Valentine Strasser, who came to power in 1992 with a pledge to finish off the enemy, claims three- quarters of the national budget is being spent on the war.

Backed by Guinean and Nigerian troops, the government has drafted in Ukrainian pilots to fly its Soviet-era helicopter gunships and demobilised Gurkhas to train the army in guerrilla and jungle warfare. Western "security consultants" occupy the capital's one remaining smart hotel.

Yet the enemy seems almost as insubstantial as the muggy haze that has descended with the approach of the rainy season. No one knows how many fighters the RUF has or how many other insurgent groups may be active alongside the main rebel movement. At the RUF's head is the shadowy, enigmatic Colonel Foday Sankoh, whose base lies somewhere in the steamy eastern forests.To diplomats and aid agency workers whom he contacts by radio, he is little more than a disembodied, crackly voice.

The colonel is believed to have trained in the Royal West African Forces before Sierra Leone gained independence in 1961. Having served a long prison term for an attempted coup, he re-emerged to oppose the regime of Major-General Joseph Momoh, president from 1986 to1992.

The RUF was launched in 1991, backed by Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia and has waged a Taylor-style campaign: terrorising communities, looting supplies and disrupting economic life. Colonel Sankoh has 10 expatriate hostages, six of them Britons.

The government has shown readiness to take part in internationally mediated peace talks but the RUF has refused to negotiate until all foreign troops are withdrawn. In the meantime, the rebels are expected to tighten their grip around Freetown.