Nigerian warships shell Sierra Leone in bid to crush coup

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The Independent Online
Nigerian warships moved in to shell the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, at dawn yesterday as part of an attempt to end the week-old coup which overthrew the elected government and returned the former British colony to anarchy. The leaders of the mutiny, 20 junior army officers, swore to fight "to the last".

The firing in the western end of Freetown was directed at the military headquarters used by the coup leaders. Western journalists reported seeing the flashes of their guns as they kept up a sporadic fire. Diplomatic sources yesterday said the fighting appeared to have eased and the British High Commissioner, Peter Penfold, was trying to secure a ceasefire.

The Nigerians said they had re- established control of the international airport at Lungi, north of the capital, which they had held in an uneasy accord with the rebels since the 25 May coup. "We took it this morning," a Nigerian officer said. "There was a fire-fight with the Sierra Leonian forces there but it didn't last long." The naval bombardment may have been in support of this action.

Most Westerners have been evacuated in the past few days in dramatic rescues by a French air charter company, which took out 400 British, European and Commonwealth citizens last week, and by the US Marines, who evacuated another 800 Westerners on Friday. A few remain. Yesterday, 230 evacuees arrived at Stansted airport, Essex, and said heavily armed soldiers, some as young as 11, were terrorising the capital. About 15 Britons are believed to remain in the Cape Sierra hotel and 85, plus 12 Americans, in the Mammy Yoko hotel, the main staging post for the evacuation. The US amphibious assault ship Kearsarge may return to Freetown to extract the last Westerners, although the Foreign Office said yesterday that all those who wanted to be evacuated had already left.

Nigeria is leading a pan-African peacekeeping force originally deployed to keep the peace in neighbouring Liberia. Its troops have an international mandate to secure the airport, but have taken it upon themselves to try to overthrow the coup.

British aid worker Andrew Cox, 27, who works for the charity Concern Universal, said boys wandering the streets were armed with machine-guns and rifles. He said armouries had been pillaged and the weapons distributed among child vagrants who sleep on the beaches.

"There was a big guy with a gun," said Mr Cox. "He was very twitchy - more scared of us than we were of him ... We lost a vehicle and a lot of cash to the soldiers, but thankfully they did not harm us".

Another Briton, Laura Kenya-Barclay, 38, arrived with her daughter Konya, born a week ago, just after the coup. "It was very scary. I was planning to have the child in hospital, but I had to have her at home because of the shooting," she said.

The country's West African neighbours, led by Nigeria, have been trying to persuade the coup leader, Major Johnny Paul Koromha, to step down after he seized power from the elected government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.