Sierra Leone Ready for Attack
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) _ Thousands of refugees poured into Freetown on Wednesday as pro-government troops rushed to key towns near Sierra Leone’s steamy seaside capital to prepare for a feared rebel attack.
U.N. peacekeepers, the Sierra Leone army and pro-government militia fighters were consolidating their forces along the road into the capital from Waterloo, 15 miles away, where fleeing residents said they heard the sound of gunfire Wednesday morning.
``Waterloo is now the front line,″ said Joseph Jalloh, an army commander.
He said the government expected an attack there by forces of the rebel Revolutionary United Front. The rebels _ who killed thousands during a civil war that ended last July _ have thrown the nation’s peace process into jeopardy, taking U.N. peacekeepers hostage, clashing with pro-government forces and shooting civilian protesters in recent days.
The massing of pro-government forces followed a night of sporadic gunfire in three locations within 50 miles of the capital, a U.N. official said. It was unclear whether these incidents foreshadowed an impending rebel offensive.
Fueling the apprehension was the mystery of rebel leader Foday Sankoh’s whereabouts. He disappeared Monday after his bodyguards shot and killed at least four demonstrators outside his home.
In New York, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said peacekeepers were taking up defensive positions in readiness for possible fighting. ``We hope that it’s not going to come to a pitched battle, but in a sense we’re preparing for one,″ he said.
Fighters loyal to former military ruler Johnny Paul Koroma sped to Waterloo on Wednesday. An aide to Koroma said President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah had authorized Koroma’s forces to defend Freetown. The aide, Prince Nicol, dismissed any defensive tactics.
``The U.N. still insists their mandate is not to fight. We are not waiting for them,″ Nicol said.
Passing government forces as they rushed from Freetown were thousands of Sierra Leoneans arriving by foot, car and truck in the capital, fearful of a spread of the fighting.
``Last time they (the rebels) came, it happened like this. We were not going to wait for them,″ said Rominus Conteh, sitting on a bundle filled with the few possessions he could carry. Conteh said he and his family had fled a refugee camp in Waterloo after hearing gunfire Wednesday morning.
Bintou Bomeh, a pregnant 18-year-old with a cloth bundle containing some shriveled onions atop her head, said the gunshots near Masiaka on Monday forced her to leave home. ``I’m frightened now,″ she said.
In their eight-year campaign to oust Kabbah’s government before signing a power-sharing agreement in July, the rebels mutilated and dismembered their victims by the thousands. Limbless men, women and children _ some fitted with prostheses, most not _ are a frequent sight here.
The situation in Sierra Leone has become increasingly chaotic since a Nigerian-led regional intervention force _ which had been in the country along with U.N. peacekeepers to enforce July’s peace agreement _ pulled out last week. Since then, clashes have broken out intermittently between peacekeepers and rebels. Some 500 peacekeepers are being held hostage by the RUF. At least one peacekeeper is believed to be dead.
Washington has said the U.S. Air Force is prepared to fly in a battalion of U.N. peacekeepers from Bangladesh _ roughly 700 to 800 soldiers _ in coming days. The United Nations wants to speed up deployment of that battalion and two others scheduled to arrive by mid-July, bringing the U.N. force up to its full strength of 11,100.
Canada said Wednesday it was sending a plane to help ferry 1,800 Indian and Bangladeshi peacekeepers to the West African nation. In London, British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon said British troops would defend Freetown’s airport but would not join the U.N. force to quell any rebel threat. Hoon told the British Broadcasting Corp. the soldiers would only guard the airport to allow evacuation of British nationals and the reinforcement of the U.N. peacekeeping force.
U.N. officials have said the peacekeepers in Sierra Leone are not a well-honed fighting force. On Wednesday, Secretary-General Kofi Annan chastised powerful members states for not sending their better-trained forces to assist the embattled mission.
Sierra Leone is among the world’s poorest countries despite vast diamond resources. In principle, the rebels and Sankoh were included in the power-sharing deal that ended the civil war.
Asked Wednesday if the United Nations had been duped by Sankoh, the U.N. special representative to Sierra Leone, Oluyemi Adeniji, said ``that is a conclusion that you may reach now.″