Trapped in the devil's lair

Alex Duval Smith in Freetown on the savage politics that led to the seizing of the British hostages

THEY HAD been packed off to tropical west Africa with a pay rise and orders to take up postings as unarmed United Nations military observers. Some of the five British officers had been there only a few days when they were taken hostage by rebels in the thick bush of Sierra Leone, in the wettest season of the year.

The fate of the Britons among 34 soldiers and civilians from all over the world who were captured by 500 notoriously brutal rebels on Wednesday now rests in the hands of British and UN negotiating efforts this weekend. Though the UN lawyers and British police, military and Foreign Office officials are seasoned operators they are new to what one 16th-century Portuguese explorer called "the place where the devil lives".

They are dealing with arguably the world's most ruthless guerrillas, who maim, burn and gang-rape. One of their leaders, Sam Bockarie, was described by a British official last week as a psychopath. His response to the government's election slogan to the electorate that "the future is in your hands" has been to order his men to cut those hands off - offering victims the macabre choice of having them severed at the wrist or elbow. "Do you want long or short arms?" is the gruesome question they are asked.

But the abduction of the top military men - four army majors and a lieutenant- colonel - in the lush, green Occra Hills 30 miles east of Freetown, the capital, was just waiting to happen. Unlike the rest of the international community, Britain, the former colonial ruler, has maintained some involvement with the country, spending millions on keeping in power the popularly elected but weak President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. And it has precipitated an iniquitous solution to the eight-year civil war which in January saw the rebels briefly enter Freetown.

As in many African wars, there is a simple key to the chaos which has left more than 50,000 people dead since 1991 and at least 10,000 with stumps where they used to have hands. Some of the best diamonds in the world are in Sierra Leone - in river beds where they can be dug out by hand. With its other mineral resources, Sierra Leone - the size of Scotland - may have the richest subsoil in the world; a fitting place for the devil to create mischief.

According to Vicente Lopez, a Spanish diamond dealer in Freetown, "buying rough diamonds here, even with the losses in cutting and polishing, I pay $500 for one carat of vvs [very very slight inclusion] and can sell it for $150,000 in Switzerland". The profit margin of the main rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), backed by Liberia and Burkina Faso which controls two-thirds of the country, is undoubtedly even greater.

Peace officially broke out in Sierra Leone on 7 July when the RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, signed a deal in Togo with President Kabbah and the Nigerian- led West African intervention force, Ecomog. The British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, on a visit to Nigeria in March, had summoned the Sierra Leonean president and instructed him to accept peace. President Kabbah, who had been kept in State House with the help of pounds 30m from Britain since returning to power in April 1998 after a putsch, had no choice.

Britain, Mr Cook told him, was not going to spend any more on futile attempts to beat the rebels on the battlefield, which in 1997 had included an embargo-breaching arms shipment brokered by Sandline International. The newly elected Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, reinforced the message: his country, which is moving towards democracy, provides nearly all the 15,000 Ecomog troops, and it is time to bring them home.

As the talks ended, Human Rights Watch produced a report cataloguing "some of the worst crimes we have ever seen, anywhere in the world". In Freetown, the results are seen at amputee camps inhabited by rural men, women and children who lost lips, ears and hands to knives, axes and machetes in orchestrated rebel attacks. Some watched their families being burnt alive in their huts. Children were forced to kill their parents or siblings before being led off as slaves.

These people were the victims of a campaign of sadism, orchestrated by Sankoh and Bockarie's RUF as well as by the group's on-off allies in the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) which is holding the hostages.

At the Togo talks, President Kabbah conceded four cabinet seats to the RUF, and four deputy ministries. The RUF was given licence to become a political party and, controversially, all rebels were given immunity from prosecution for war crimes. Crucially, Sankoh was made chairman of a new commission which will issue diamond-mining and exporting licences.

Britain immediately set about organising the means for the deal to be workable, including a disarmament and retraining programme for rebels, the establishment of a 5,000-strong armed and uniformed army for Sierra Leone, a country of four million originally established as a territory for freed slaves and which has long retained ties with Britain. The high commissioner here, Peter Penfold, has put his career on the line for Sierra Leone and is adored. Tony Blair's father Leo lectured at Fourah Bay College, the oldest colonial university in Africa.

Yet political order remains a distant hope. President Kabbah's government has been neglectful, especially of rural people. In the days when the RUF had an ideology, it drew many recruits from disaffected youth. Now, many Saloneans, as they call themselves, say things were better under the military junta of 1992-1996. But that does not mean that literate Saloneans - only about 15 per cent of the population - want President Kabbah ousted. "He is a gentleman, a very fine and honest man who worked abroad for the United Nations for years," said one man. But he added, as many do, that democracy and goodwill are no match for diamonds, guns and greed.

Apart from its UN military observers, Britain has 80 top servicemen here - on double salary - on a mission to transform disarmed rebels into the new army. But pessimists believe Britain is misguided and in danger simply of creating better rebels next time.

The grindingly slow progress since the 7 July deal has created a situation which may already be irreversible: the rebels are divided and Sankoh, still in his hotel in Togo, claims that "for security reasons" he cannot come to Freetown.

The hostage-taking is evidence of rebel divisions. The AFRC, who are holding the 34, have made three clear demands: for food and medicine, for their inclusion in the Togo deal, and to see Johnny Paul Koroma, their leader.

Koroma, who ousted Kabbah in 1997, and whose guerrillas helped the RUF attack Freetown in January this year, is believed to be in captivity in RUF territory in eastern Sierra Leone. But both Sankoh and Bockarie - who also, it is becoming clear, are divided - claim that Koroma is a free man. Neither the UN, the British nor any journalists have managed to reach Koroma to ask him.

If international mediators manage to produce Koroma, the hostages are likely to be freed. It would also be a sign that Sankoh still can influence Bockarie and that the RUF can reunite. Then the peace deal has a chance of survival.

If not, the rebels - divided - will fill their bellies with food from the aid agencies who are now returning to Sierra Leone and return to fighting when the rainy season ends in November.

KEY QUESTIONS

Who holds the hostages?

The hostages, sent to negotiate the release of 200 children, were taken by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), which is independent of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

So what is the difference between the rebel groups?

The RUF, led by an ex-colonel, began the war in 1991. The AFRC, made up of mutinous soldiers, joined it in 1997.

Why is the AFRC holding children hostage?

Both the AFRC and the RUF have abducted thousands of children - many of them to fight.

What do the rebels want?

The AFRC has demanded the release of its leader, John Paul Koroma, who, it says, is being held captive in Freetown.

What are the roots of the conflict?

Rebels emerged amid bitterness over corruption following the end of British rule in 1961.

What were the effects of the war?

At least 50,000 people died in the fighting and an estimated 100,000 were mutilated.

Source: BBC World Service

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