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Sierra Leone Rebels Seize UN Workers

May 3, 2000

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) _ Rebels seized 20 U.N. workers as the West African intervention force that defended the government during eight years of bloody civil war completed its pullout of Sierra Leone, U.N. officials said Tuesday.

Revolutionary United Front rebels captured eight U.N. military observers and peacekeepers Monday in the central city of Makeni, U.N. officials said.

As the last of the West African intervention force left the capital, Freetown, for the airport Tuesday, rebels seized another five people _ two Russian U.N. helicopter pilots and three unidentified passengers _ in the eastern city of Kailahun. Another seven U.N. military personnel were captured in the area after rebels erected a roadblock, Hedi Annabe, assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, said in New York.

The government condemned what it called the ``recent incidents of indiscriminate violence perpetrated by some misguided ex-combatants against the international peacekeepers″ in a statement issued Tuesday night.

The United Nations force ``has been exercising considerable restraint,″ the statement said. But that does not mean ``it does not have the mandate, the means and capability to discharge its responsibilities.″

In New York, the U.N. Security Council held emergency consultations to discuss the incident and issued a statement calling the rebels’ actions criminal and ``tantamount to violations″ of a cease-fire agreement signed last July.

The council demanded that rebel Revolutionary United Front leader Foday Sankoh immediately give instructions to his followers to end attacks against the United Nations, withdraw his forces immediately and abide by the cease-fire agreement signed in Lome, Togo.

Sankoh, who was brought into the government as part of a power-sharing agreement last year, was not available for comment.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the ``outrageous and criminal″ seizures and demanded the rebels cooperate with the United Nations.

``It seems as if Foday Sankoh is trying to derail the peace process,″ U.N. force commander Maj. Gen. Vijay Kumar Jetley said.

Jetley insisted, though, that the U.N. mission called UNAMSIL was capable of enforcing Sierra Leone’s shaky cease-fire agreement, signed by both sides in July. The United Nations was expected to boost its force from the current 8,500 soldiers to 11,500 by July.

But many Sierra Leoneans have expressed skepticism that U.N. troops can enforce the fragile peace.

While authorized to use force, the peacekeepers _ mainly Indians, Kenyans and Nigerians _ have avoided confronting the rebels, who during the war killed tens of thousands of civilians and intentionally maimed many more.

Tens of thousands of rebels also have refused to give up their guns, U.N. officials said.

The kidnapping Monday occurred after about 100 armed Revolutionary United Front rebels surrounded a Makeni disarmament and demobilization center, demanding the return of 10 fighters who had turned in weapons. When U.N. troops refused, the rebels fired into the air and seized a U.N. military observer. Another three observers and three peacekeepers were captured when they went to negotiate their colleague’s release.

The two pilots and three passengers captured Tuesday were taken at a rebel roadblock in Kailahun, where they had gone to drop off U.N. supplies, U.N. officials said.

U.N. officials said they were attempting to negotiate the release of the hostages with other RUF leaders. ``We have the military option as we are a trained force,″ Jetley said. ``But that is the last resort.″

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