The four-year-old Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone is led by a former soldier, Foday Sankoh. He claims to be liberating the country in the name of democracy and freedom to purge it of corruption and tyranny. His forces yesterday killed four government soldiers who were searching for the 11 kidnapped foreigners, including six Britons.
The rebels have operated in the thick bush of the north and east of the country since 1991, ambushing vehicles, attacking towns and making parts of the country ungovernable. It is easy for the RUF to emerge from the bush, seize some hostages and return to their bases in Liberia or Guinea. In 1993 they were driven back to the Liberian border but reappeared in central Sierra Leone within weeks.
The government and diplomats based in the capital, Freetown, claim Sankoh and his men are the pawns of Charles Taylor, the Liberian rebel leader. They say the RUF was set up to undermine the government because it supported the Nigerian-led West African Peace-Keeping Force in Liberia and allowed Nigerian jets to operate from Sierra Leonean bases to bomb Taylor's forces in Liberia.
Sankoh, 58, has always claimed his war has nothing to do with Taylor but accepts he has had some help from Liberia and denounces the government's support for the peace-keeping force.
The government in Freetown is a fragile and corrupt regime of greedy young officers who seized power in 1992 and now live off the system they denounced to justify their coup. Until then Sierra Leone had been sliding into ruin for years; soldiers were often unpaid, businesses were run by crooks, most of them foreigners, and the people were becoming more hungry and frustrated. But the coup-makers simply adopted the system for their own ends.
Valentin Strasser, frontman for the coup-makers, is reclusive but occasionally poses for the cameras in battle fatigues and dark glasses in imitation of his hero, Jerry Rawlings of Ghana. Strasser's government refused to seek a political solution to the war, believing it could be won by military means.
He increased the army from a 1,000-strong ceremonial force to an untrained gang of 10,000, many of them street children from Freetown. The military offensive proved as barbaric as it was futile. Many of the armed children became "sobels" as they are known, soldiers by day, rebels by night, killing, robbing and spreading terror.
But the breakdown is symptomatic of something deeper in the region. Like much of West Africa, Sierra Leone is slipping away from the modern world and reverting to systems run by local warlords and barons. Liberia has already dissolved, Sierra Leone is being carved up and war is starting in Guinea.
Western countries have all but abandoned what was once a model British colony. The main interest for London now, apart from the £4m it gave in aid last year, is Sierra Leone's mining deposits including diamonds, once the country's main source of wealth. The diamond mines were abandoned by De Beers in the 1980s but the London-based company is now back with an offshore mining concession.Reuse content