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Sierra Leone’s President Returns

March 10, 1998

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) _ Celebrating the success of an unprecedented African mission to restore democracy, President Ahmed Tejan returned to Sierra Leone in triumph Tuesday after a 10-month exile forced by a military coup.

Kabbah, welcomed by 21-gun salutes, roaring crowds and dancers in red and brown carved masks, pledged to rebuild his battered country and replace military rule with constitutional government:

``We will make this a new beginning. We will make this a new beginning for Sierra Leone.″

Kabbah, Sierra Leone’s first elected leader, had been living in exile in neighboring Guinea since May, when army Lt. Col. Johnny Paul Koroma seized power in a bloody coup that ushered in a period of ruinous armed rule.

After laying siege to the junta-held capital for months, a Nigerian-led West African army fighting on behalf of Kabbah finally managed to drive Koroma from Freetown in February.

The offensive marked the first time that African armies had intervened to return an elected leader to power in a neighboring country, rather than topple one, said Jeffrey Herbst of Princeton University, an expert on Africa.

Amid pageantry and celebrations, Freetown was transformed for a day from the misery of a war-scarred capital of one of the world’s poorest countries into a jubilant city filled with hope.

At Freetown’s National Stadium, tens of thousands of people packed in to hear their president address the country for the first time since he was deposed.

``The people of Sierra Leone have suffered for too long,″ Kabbah said, promising to do everything in his power to reconstruct the country’s infrastructure and economy.

Dozens of dignitaries and West African heads of state, including Nigerian leader Gen. Sani Abacha, praised Kabbah and the return of his elected government.

Abacha, widely criticized for alleged human-rights abuses at home, has been welcomed as a hero in Sierra Leone. The Nigerian military leader has said his own country will hold democratic presidential elections in August, five years after he canceled voting for the presidency and imposed army rule.

In Freetown, military bands played the national anthem and martial music throughout Tuesday’s ceremony.

In the stands, the delighted audience cheered, danced and jumped in the air.

``The junta was barbaric, inhuman and committed cold-blooded murder on Sierra Leone,″ Vice President Albert Joe Demby told the crowd.

The president was expected to appeal for international aid to begin rebuilding.

Tuesday, however, was a day of celebration.

Revelers mixed in the streets with thousands of Nigerian soldiers guarding checkpoints along the capital’s main road. Helicopters buzzed overhead throughout the morning to insure security in Freetown.

``We have our real president back,″ said Najimu Hamed, shouting to be heard over blasting music and cheering. ``Now we have something to hope for.″

Elected in March 1996, ending five years of military rule, the president had faced criticism for excesses in government spending and political patronage before he was ousted.

``I am so happy that the government is coming back to take its rightful position,″ said auto mechanic Amara Mason. ``I hope the government can do something for our country.″

Before the coup, Sierra Leone was one of the world’s poorest countries, and conditions have only worsened.

Soldiers loyal to Koroma went on a rampage in their final days of power before the Nigerian-led West African force drove them from the capital. Shops were robbed of everything _ food, fuel and clothing.

The city has slowly crept back to life, but not easily.

Shops are barred shut, looted cars line streets and the central bank building stands gutted and blackened by a fire believed to have been set by fleeing rebels.

More than 5,000 West African troops have been deployed in the city to secure it for Kabbah’s return. Sporadic fighting continued where rebels were holding out in remote parts of the interior.

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