Sierra Leone deal promises end to conflict

PEACE BECKONED at last yesterday for Sierra Leone when the country's government and rebel forces agreed on a deal to end one of Africa's most vicious and brutal civil wars in modern times.

A draft accord, drawn up under the auspices of a group of West African countries, provides for a power-sharing arrangement between President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and the Revolutionary United Front guerrilla movement, which toppled him for nine months in 1997 and almost drove him from power again in another round of savage fighting in January.

Under the deal, the RUF will be given four ministerial and four deputy ministerial jobs in a new government, rather than the eight full portfolios it at one point demanded. But the movement's leader, Foday Sankoh, will have "vice-presidential status" at the head of a special commission handling Sierra Leone's mineral wealth, said the Foreign Minister of Togo, one of the mediators of the deal. A death sentence passed in absentia on Mr Sankoh is being set aside.

If it holds - a considerable "if" - the agreement will restore a measure of stability to one of Africa's poorest countries, which has known little but turmoil and killing since the RUF took up arms against the military regime in Freetown in 1991. Child soldiers were widely used, and the RUF regularly resorted to wholesale terror of the civilian population by mutilation and massacre.

Civilian rule nominally returned with the election of President Kabbah in 1996. The following year, however, he was overthrown by the rebels, despite the clandestine supply of arms to the government by Britain, which generated its own political scandal at Wesminster.

Last year, Mr Kabbah was returned to power by Ecomog, the regional military force led by Nigeria. But the RUF retained control of much of the countryside, and of the diamond trade that accounts for most of what wealth Sierra Leone possesses. Six months ago, a rebel advance came within an ace of taking the capital, Freetown, before being repulsed by Ecomog in bloody street fighting.

At that point peace negotiations began in Lome, under intense pressure from Nigeria in particular, which lost 1,000 soldiers in the fighting, and whose bankrupt government could no longer afford the $1m-a-day cost of the war.

Almost certainly some form of international peace-keeping force will be needed in Sierra Leone. But no replacement for Ecomog is yet in sight.