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Sierra Leone Rebels Said to Release Remaining U.N. Hostages

The Associated Press
May 29, 2000

Liberian and United Nations officials said today that they believed that Sierra Leone rebels had released the remaining hostages among some 500 United Nations personnel captured earlier this month.

A United Nations spokesman, David Wimhurst, said 85 captives had been airlifted in three groups by helicopter to Monrovia, Liberia's capital, from the border town of Foya. A senior Liberian military official said some were still in Foya and would be flown out on Monday. "The United Nations now believes we have got all the hostages out subject to confirmation," Mr. Wimhurst said. He said four peacekeepers were unaccounted for and were believed to have been killed in fighting when the hostage-taking began on May 6. Another group of 23 peacekeepers from India remained surrounded by rebels in the village of Quiver, in eastern Sierra Leone, but they had been allowed to keep their weapons. Their immediate status was not known.

The 85 were expected to arrive late today in Freetown on a United Nations transport plane. While hostages had been released in a trickle over the past few weeks, the reason the rebels decided to free all of their captives remained unclear.

The United Nations gave no further information today about negotiations with President Charles Taylor of Liberia, a close regional ally to the rebels who had overseen the release of most of the hostages.

On Friday and Saturday, 143 hostages were flown from Liberia to Sierra Leone. The first batch of hostages freed today -- all Zambians -- were flown to the Liberian capital from northeastern Sierra Leone, where Liberian officials said rebels handed them over.

Dressed in military uniforms and clutching bottles of mineral water, the former hostages were relieved and joyful. Most were in good physical condition, although some were treated for malaria, minor injuries and fatigue, Liberian medical officials said. "I feel very happy," said Lance Cpl. Elias Mwanza, who suffered from a swollen jaw and other injuries. "I thought we were never going to reach this place." Corporal Mwanza said some of the captors had tormented the hostages while others were more kind and promised not to kill them "because we are their African brothers." Pvt. Goma Justin, who had deep cuts on his foot from stepping on broken glass, described his captivity as "rough."

Despite the releases, fighting between rebels and pro-government forces was reported over the weekend at the strategic crossroads of Rogberi Junction, about 50 miles east of Freetown, Mr. Wimhurst said. He had no further details. Meanwhile, West African heads of state were gathering for meetings in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, to discuss the crisis in Sierra Leone. Informal talks were held on Saturday.

The Revolutionary United Front rebels killed tens of thousands of people and hacked the limbs off many more during Sierra Leone's eight-year civil war. The conflict was reignited earlier this month when the rebels took the United Nations peacekeepers hostage and began advancing toward Freetown. Since then, a ragtag alliance of pro-government forces has tried to push the rebels away from the capital. The rebels' leader, Foday Sankoh, is in government custody, and officials have said they may prosecute him for the illegal diamond-dealing and the killings of 21 people during a public demonstration outside his home earlier this month.

Any prosecution of Mr. Sankoh threatens to restart a full-blown civil war. His rebel supporters have reportedly demanded his release. Mr. Sankoh was convicted and sentenced to death for treason once before in 1998 but was released and given amnesty under a peace accord signed last July. His rebels abandoned the deal in early May when they advanced toward the capital and took the peacekeepers hostage.

Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora, a Spanish television cameraman for The Associated Press, and Kurt Schork, an American correspondent for Reuters, were killed on Wednesday in a rebel ambush. Mark Chisholm, a South African cameraman, and Yannis Behrakis, a Greek photographer, suffered light injuries in the same attack.

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