Global Policy Forum

Sierra Leone Crisis Eases, UN Declares


By Douglas Farah

Washington Post
May 8, 2000

Freetown, Sierra Leone - Senior U.N. officials sought today to allay fears that civil war is about to erupt again in this troubled West African nation, saying that a series of meetings with leaders of a rebel group holding about 500 U.N. peacekeepers captive had helped defuse an escalating crisis.

Special U.N. representative Oluyemi Odeniji acknowledged that units of the rebel Revolutionary United Front had begun moving toward Freetown on Saturday night and had clashed with U.N. peacekeeping troops, but he said the advance was stopped late Saturday at the request of rebel leader Foday Sankoh. None of the peacekeepers has been freed, however, and Odeniji said no date has been set for their release.

On Saturday night, the United Nations announced that the rebels were on the verge of attacking this seaside capital but then quickly retracted the statement. Odeniji said the mistake was due to "human error." However, because Freetown was subjected to a brutal rebel attack in January 1997-during which thousands of civilians were killed or had their limbs amputated by the rebels-the news sent waves of panic through the city.

There was no fighting in Freetown today as heavily armed U.N. troops manned numerous checkpoints in and around the city, including one in front of Sankoh's mansion. Nevertheless, the United States and Britain began to evacuate most of their diplomats and advised their nationals to leave. Britain's Defense Ministry also announced it would send several hundred troops, a helicopter carrier and a frigate to Senegal as a "precautionary measure" to protect British nationals in Sierra Leone.

Under terms of a 1999 peace pact, the rebels agreed to demobilize and, in exchange, Sankoh and other top rebel officials were given senior government positions and amnesty for atrocities committed during the war. Despite the peace agreement, the rebel group-which has more than 10,000 men under arms-has refused to disarm or demobilize because its forces protect and profit from the country's rich diamond producing areas.

There are about 8,700 U.N. troops in Sierra Leone monitoring the cease-fire, and last week-for reasons not yet fully explained-the rebels began taking peacekeepers captive. U.N. officials said seven U.N. soldiers were killed in initial clashes, but that number was subsequently reduced to four, and today they said that only one peacekeeper was confirmed dead and one was missing.

But since the initial clashes, the number of peacekeepers captured has risen-some of them identified as troops reinforcing those already under attack. U.N. officials say that about 500 peacekeepers-most of them from India, Zambia, Nigeria and Kenya-remain missing or in rebel hands. The rebels also have seized hundreds of weapons, uniforms and more than a dozen U.N. vehicles in what has quickly developed into the most humiliating episode for the United Nations in years.

As the crisis deepened, U.N. troops surrounded Sankoh's home this weekend, apparently triggering fears among his rebel followers that he would be arrested. "There was some movement of some [rebel] boys who thought Foday Sankoh was in danger," Odeniji said. "When we heard this, we took steps to contact Mr. Sankoh, and he said he would look into it. . . . He did, and the boys were ordered back." The firefight Saturday between rebel and U.N. forces resulted in no casualties, U.N. officials said. Government troops used a helicopter gunship to fire on the rebels both Saturday and today, Odeniji said, but no casualty figures were available. On Saturday, U.N. officials had erroneously said that peacekeepers opened fire with a helicopter gunship.

Today, Odeniji said, a joint commission of U.N. officials and senior rebel commanders visited areas where combatants had mobilized about 60 miles north of Freetown on Saturday and verified that the advance toward the capital had stopped. On Monday, another joint committee may begin visiting specific areas where the U.N. believes peacekeepers are being held, he said. "The basic aim was to verify by all sides that what we were told about non-movement and non-threat to the capital was reality," Odeniji said. Rebel commanders "were told effectively not to do anything that would create panic in Freetown, and they seem to have obeyed. . . . Now we are picking up the pieces and trying to get back to the status quo ante."

Sankoh's ability to bring a rapid halt to the march on the capital underscored his continued control over rebel forces in the field, even though he claims he has been unable to determine which, if any, of his followers are holding the captives. U.N. officials and diplomats said that such obfuscation is part of what has made negotiating with Sankoh so difficult, and they said they believe he could end the hostage crisis in a few minutes if he wanted to.

Nevertheless, diplomats and former rebel officials said that the structure of the Revolutionary United Front is a major hinderance to resolving the hostage crisis. Unlike rebel movements in other countries, the front was not formed on the basis of a strong ideology and did not seek to cultivate a broad-based leadership. Instead, it built its force by kidnapping thousands of children, feeding them crack cocaine and other drugs and then sending them out to wage war and commit atrocities. During their indoctrination, former combatants have said, they were told repeatedly that their mothers and fathers were dead and that Sankoh was now their father.

"What you have now is Sankoh and a few other commanders, then teenagers with weapons. There are no intermediate commands, no checks on the excess of teenagers who are often high and have no sense of what they are really doing," one diplomat said recently. "To them, Sankoh is a father figure, the only one they have, so he gets blind obedience and loyalty." Whatever progress on the crisis has been made in recent days is due in large part to the presence of a senior Libyan diplomat, who arrived here two days ago and has met repeatedly with Sankoh. As a young man, Sankoh trained in Libya, and Libya had given his rebels support.

The diplomat, Ali Treki, minister of African Unity Affairs in Tripoli, said he had held numerous meetings with Sankoh at the invitation of the United Nations. "In the last two days, I think we have succeeded in easing tensions," Treki said. "Foday Sankoh has promised to do whatever is necessary to help. He has said clearly to all of us that he has no intention whatsoever to start the war again."

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has voiced concern that the continuing crisis-coupled with the refusal of the United States, France and Britain to intervene on behalf of the United Nations-could spell the death of U.N. peacekeeping in Africa at a time when he is hoping to create a U.N. observer force for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In Washington today, a Clinton administration official said that "we are prepared to be supportive in terms of logistics assistance," primarily airlift for peacekeeping troops. "There's no question the U.N. peacekeeping operation is under stress," the official said, adding that the United States is interested in "providing whatever help is necessary." He added, however, that the question of U.S. combat troops is "not being discussed."

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