Global Policy Forum

Soldiers Kidnap African Observers


Clarence Roy-Macaulay

Associated Press
August 5, 1999

Freetown, Sierra Leone -- Former junta soldiers demanding humanitarian aid kidnapped 13 U.N. military observers, four journalists and a group of regional intervention soldiers, a U.N. official said today.

The soldiers abducted their captives Wednesday when the fighters were supposed to hand over 150 women and children taken prisoner during the West African country's bloody civil war, which ended last month.

After releasing a few prisoners, the soldiers began to complain that they needed food and medicine and wanted to talk to the United Nations about their plight. Later, they turned their weapons on the group and marched the people into the forest, said Jacqueline Chenard, a spokeswoman for the U.N. military observer mission. The incident occurred at Okra Hill, a forested, hilly area about 40 miles east of the coastal capital, Freetown.

The abductees were being held by former soldiers of the Armed Force Revolutionary Council, the junta that seized power in a 1997 coup and was ousted in 1998 by the West African intervention force, known as ECOMOG. The junta later allied itself with Sierra Leone's brutal rebel movement, though many former junta soldiers now act independently and have become outlaws, terrorizing parts of the country.

The soldiers took 13 unarmed U.N. observers and an unknown number of soldiers from the West African intervention force known as ECOMOG. They also seized Christo Johnson, a local reporter for Reuters, Pasco Temple of Liberia's Star radio and two people from Sierra Leonean television. The journalists were covering the prisoner handover.

``Discussions are going on, and we hope the situation will be resolved by today and that the abductees will be released,'' said Chenard, who was at the scene. The government and the Revolutionary United Front on July 7 signed a peace agreement in Lome, the capital of Africa's Togo, to end the eight-year civil war. Tens of thousands of people were killed in the war, and many more were maimed by the rebels in a brutal campaign of terror.

It is unknown where the soldiers ares keeping the women and children who were to have been released Wednesday. Abductees are believed to be held across Sierra Leone, though there are no reliable estimates on how many.

Covering Sierra Leone has been particularly dangerous for journalists in recent months. At least nine have been killed there this year, including Myles Tierney, a Kenya-based producer for Associated Press Television News, who was shot by gunmen in January. Ian Stewart, the former West Africa bureau chief, was seriously injured in the attack.

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