Global Policy Forum

U.N. Monitors Accuse Sierra Leone Peacekeepers of Killings


By Judith Miller

New York Times
February 12, 1999

A United Nations human rights mission has charged that regional peace-keepers in Sierra Leone have summarily executed dozens of civilians. Numerous reports of rebel violence against civilians in Sierra Leone have circulated, but in a report the mission describes systematic rights violations by both insurgents and peacekeepers.

Kofi Annan, the Secretary General, told the Security Council Thursday that while the rebels had killed more than 3,000 people and committed a variety of atrocities, witnesses had also accused Government forces and peacekeepers, mainly from Nigeria, of summarily executing of suspected rebels. The report accuses the monitoring group established by the Economic Community of West African States, or Ecomog, of executing people suspected of being rebels, among them children and some 20 patients at Connaught Hospital on Jan. 12.

The report says that Ecomog forces bombed civilian targets, shot at "human shields" formed by the rebels and mistreated the staffs of the Red Cross and similar groups. The report details violations witnessed by United Nations personnel and by survivors who met with members of the mission, which traveled to Freetown, the capital, in January and February.

That was a time of intense fighting in the capital in which thousands of people were reported killed in just two weeks. The unusually detailed report, a few copies of which circulated here today, accuses the rebel forces of wholesale rights violations, including the killing of children and infants, decapitations, amputations, the rape of children and the burning of elderly and defenseless people. Other people were shot by the rebels for refusing to sing or dance in the streets, the report says.

Last June, Mr. Annan commended Ecomog for having helped restore security in most parts of Sierre Leone and asked for extra aid for the special force. He reiterated the appeal today, saying that Ecomog needed money "to carry out its important mission for regional peace and security." The force restored a civilian Government after a 1997 military coup, but the rebels remain active just outside the capital and in the country's interior.

The report was filed by human rights monitors within the United Nations Observer Mission in Sierra Leone, a group created last June by the Security Council to help restore peace and insure human rights in the war-ravaged country. The monitors, who interviewed some 100 people in Freetown on Jan. 25 and from Feb. 1 to 4, say the mission observed "numerous incidents of ill treatment" of people whom Ecomog soldiers detained at checkpoints.

Punishment included "whipping, beating, varying types of public humiliation, and being bound extremely tightly," the report says. Witnesses "of the highest probity," it adds, said they had seen Ecomog execute three people at Ferry Junction and Connaught Hospital, Sierra Leone's largest, after only "a cursory interrogation." An 8-year-old boy was executed after being caught with a pistol.

The mission members themselves witnessed an execution at Connaught Hospital on Feb. 3, the report says. The perpetrators "were in Ecomog uniform and onlookers stated their view that the victims were rebel collaborators."

The mission concludes that the Government's forces also "bear responsibility for summary executions." On Feb. 3, the report says, "senior U.N. staff observed and photographed a newly severed human head displayed on a stick" at a government checkpoint.

The report says the monitors filed documentary and photographic evidence of their charges in Conakry, Guinea, where they and other United Nations groups relocated after the rebels overran Freetown in January. The report says that at least 3,000 to 5,000 people had been killed and 150,000 dislocated, but that the actual casualty rate "will never be known."

There are about 15,000 Ecomog soldiers in Sierra Leone. With virtually no national army, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah relied on the Nigerian-dominated force to regain power last March after his democratically elected Government was overthrown. Ecomog is widely credited with having done a fairly reputable job, so the accusations against the regional peacekeepers, especially by United Nations human rights monitors, are bound to stir controversy.

Still, the report blames the rebels for most of the brutality and civilian casualties, which it calls "entirely arbitrary." Witnesses said that many atrocities were committed by children and that many perpetrators were drunk or on "cocaine and other drugs." "Killing occasionally occurred in the context of games in which people were lined up and the executioners teasingly chose who to kill and who to spare," the report says. Some "burned to death in their homes had been locked in or first been disabled by gunshot."

The report called rape of females, including children, a "standard practice" of the rebels. One local commander, the report says, asked that girls be checked "to verify their status as virgins." Those who passed the test, mostly aged 12 to 15, "were ordered to report each night for sexual abuse by the commander and his men." One man described being "ordered to choose between the execution of his entire family and the surrender of his daughter to a rebel fighter." During their visits, the monitors observed "body parts remaining on beaches and other locations."

Ecomog officials, who do not have a liaison office here, could not be reached for comment. The Nigerian mission did not return a telephone call seeking comment.


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