Three nations join Nigerian offensive, renegades dig in
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) _ Three more African nations have joined Nigeria’s campaign to oust Sierra Leone’s coup leaders, Nigeria announced today, as coup leaders mounted guns on abandoned World War II bunkers to defend the capital.
Coup leader Maj. Johnny Paul Koroma sought to reassure the country that a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Nigeria was in the works, but his military forces were spotted preparing for more fighting.
The 53-nation Organization of African Unity said Wednesday it supports military intervention to end the May 25 coup, which overthrew elected President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.
A Canadian diamond mining company, DiamondWorks Ltd., said today it sent in helicopters to evacuate workers and other foreigners who had taken refuge at its compound in the eastern region of Koidu.
Nigeria, in its first official explanation for this week’s naval bombardment of the capital of Freetown, said today it acted because the renegade troops had ``caused wanton damage to lives and properties.″
The statement, signed by Nigeria’s military spokesman, Col. Godwin Ugbo, came a day after Ghana urged Sierra Leone’s coup leaders to step down and reinstate Kabbah or face further military action by Nigeria and other West African countries.
Ugbo did not identify the three African countries that have already joined the Nigerian offensive. But he said other countries _ also unidentified _ were poised to commit troops.
Ghanaian forces have been in the region since Tuesday, when they evacuated Ghanaian citizens, and some troops from neighboring Guinea have backed the Nigerians since last week.
A Ghanaian delegation began negotiations with rebel forces at a secret location Wednesday. At the same time, Ghanaian leaders threatened force if diplomacy fails.
``The military option has always been on the cards,″ Ghana’s minister of state, Kofi Totobi Quakyi, said.
He said Ghana already has discussed sending in reinforcements, as have other members of the 16-nation Economic Community of West African States, which includes Sierra Leone.
Mutineers today occupied the badly damaged Mammy Yoko Hotel in Freetown, the scene of fierce battles Monday and the site where hundreds of Americans were evacuated from last week. Looters struck the residences of the ousted president, who fled to neighboring Guinea, and several associates.
Civilian and military hospitals reported a combined total of 53 dead in Monday’s fighting.
The renegade soldiers, along with some rebels they once fought and now consider allies, roamed Freetown’s streets today. Machine guns slung over their shoulders, they harassed drivers at roadblocks and looted abandoned houses.
Koroma’s ruling council attempted to assure civilians the banditry would be short-lived. But few believed them, and 11 days after the coup, people stayed indoors and schools, banks and markets remained closed.
At Fourah Bay College, on a hill overlooking the cape west of Freetown, residents saw troops cleaning out bunkers that have not been used since World War II and mounting them with guns.
The area, heavy with renegade barracks, was singled out for attack during this week’s Nigerian bombardment.
Many civilians have not supported the coup, and the junta has increased efforts to stir opposition against the Nigerian forces trying to reinstate Kabbah’s government.
Junta announcements on Sierra Leone radio said the Nigerians had shelled civilian areas in a Freetown suburb, but resident Teddy Cline-Thomas told reporters his home was hit by explosives from a Sierra Leone helicopter.
Ugbo said Nigeria had avoided civilian targets. ``The force has been restrained to ensure minimum casualty,″ he said.
Many of Koroma’s fighters belong to the rebel Revolutionary United Front, which fought the government from 1991 until signing a cease-fire in 1996. The rebel group has now joined Koroma in the junta.