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Sierra Leone coup leader claims power

The leader of the military coup that toppled Sierra Leone's civilian government last night said he acted because the previous administration had failed to maintain the peace.

Major Johnny Paul Koroma , a figure largely unknown even inside the country, made his announcement on national radio, after fierce fighting had earlier led to President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah fleeing from the capital Freetown in a helicopter to exile in neighbouring Guinea. Major Koroma said:"As custodians of state security and defenders of the constitution [we] have today decided to overthrow the Sierra Leone Peoples Party government because of their failure to consolidate the claims achieved by the brokers of peace."

Another reason for the coup was "the failure of [the mutineers'] commanders to bring the welfare and the problems of the military to the head of state." Major Koroma called for all senior officers to report immediately to military headquarters. In the same broadcast the coup leader invited Foday Sankoh, the leader of the Revolutionary United Front that has waged a bloody five-year civil war against the Sierra Leone authorities, to join his government , urging the Nigerian Government to release him.

Corporal Sankoh has been kept in a hotel suite in the Nigerian capital for the past two months after he was allegedly caught trying to smuggle arms.

This was the third coup since 1992, when the military leader Captain Valentine Strasser took over. He promised democratic elections in February 1996; when he looked ready to renege, General Julius Maada Bio launched a coup, setting the stage for Kabbah to be elected.

An uneasy peace collapsed this month, partly because of factional splits in the RUF, but also because Kabbah was believed to have neglected the north of the country, where the rebels were based.

Yesterday's coup began when pickup trucks broke open the gates of the maximum security prison in Freetown, freeing hundreds of prisoners. Among the prisoners were two groups of soldiers at present charged in alleged plots against President Kabbah's civilian government.

Witnesses said the coup soldiers exchanged sustained fire with Nigerian troops around the presidential office complex. The coup leaders imposed a night curfew and warned looters, military or civilian, they would be shot on sight, and closed all airports and private radio stations. In Washington, the United States urged its citizens in Freetown to stay indoors and said it was prepared to evacuate them after its embassy there was hit by stray fire. Two Americans were injured when their home was looted.

Connaught Hospital, in the centre of Freetown, reported at least four dead - including a woman and a teenager - and 21 injured. One coup spokesman said they had shut down all of the country's airports and sea ports and ordered all private radio stations closed.

Nigerian and Guinean troops have backed the army in Sierra Leone's rebel war and Nigerian troops have guarded key strategic sites.

Another spokesman, Corporal Gborie, urged Nigerian troops not to intervene in what he called an "internal matter".

The United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, said he was "distressed" to learn of the coup and confirmed that local UN staff had been seized and property looted.. Later the Guinean newspaper L'Independante reported that Kabbah had arrived in Conakry, the capital of the neighbouring country.