FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) _ Hundreds of defenseless villagers have been burned, tortured and maimed in a grisly campaign of reprisals by Sierra Leone's rebel fighters, a U.N. aid official said today.

Former military junta troops seeking revenge for their ouster in February have been systematically hacking off the arms and legs of civilians _ mostly women and children, said Bailor Jalloh, project officer for the United Nations Children's Fund.

Another revenge tactic has been to force villagers to watch as entire families are burned alive inside their own homes, Jalloh said.

Jalloh said the atrocities have prompted a seven-day visit by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's envoy for children, Olara Otunnu, who arrived Wednesday and began visiting villages hit by rebel massacres.

More than 300 maimed civilians have been treated during the past month at hospitals in the capital of Freetown and the central town of Makeni, Jalloh said. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of others died before reaching medical facilities.

``The atrocities have been going on for some time but are now more severe,'' Jalloh said. ``The difference is, in the past, children were not targeted. Now they are.''

He said guerrillas wanted survivors to share their stories to intimidate others, thereby widening rebel influence over rural communities.

Many victims said their attackers told them they were being punished because they supported the restoration of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah's elected government. Kabbah was restored to power in March after a Nigerian-led West African intervention force ended 10 months of rule by fighters loyal to junta leader Lt. Col. Johnny Paul Koroma.

Koroma toppled Kabbah in a bloody coup one year ago this month.

The guerrilla fighters have taken refuge in the tree-covered countryside of northern Sierra Leone, where they are making their presence known, aid workers said.