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Sierra Leone coup leaders order troublemakers off streets

June 7, 1997

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) _ The ruling junta’s defense chief peered through binoculars at a Nigerian ship sitting off the coast, presumably with more troops ready to fight the soldiers who seized power two weeks ago.

``We are not strong enough to face them,″ Brig. Samuel Koroma, the brother of coup leader Maj. Johnny Paul Koroma told The Associated Press on Saturday, in what appeared to be the latest sign the junta was weakening.

Since ousting the civilian government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah on May 25 , the Koroma brothers and their ruling Armed Forces Revolutionary Council have yet to bring stability to the capital.

In addition to being preoccupied with the possibility of an attack by Nigerian soldiers backing Kabbah, they have been isolated internationally and unable to stop marauding troops from looting and harassing civilians.

Fear of such soldiers _ many of them former rebel fighters who poured in from the bush after the coup _ has kept civilians home from work, further hampering Koroma’s attempts to restore a sense of normalcy to Freetown.

State-run radio on Saturday ordered soldiers without specific deployment instructions to get off the streets, Johnny Koroma’s latest attempt to appear in control. It reported Friday that people who did not return to work by Monday would be fired.

Samuel Koroma, speaking at defense headquarters in the west end of Freetown, said fear of a Nigerian attack was the main reason most people were refusing to go to work. Soldiers carrying rocket-propelled grenades and an assortment of sophisticated automatic weapons loitered around him.

His troops forced Nigerian soldiers to retreat Monday, after an attack that left 50 people dead. But Nigeria says it has bolstered its troops since then, and the defense chief said he hasn’t the capacity to fight them.

He repeated a plea for negotiations. ``We want the international community to come and meet us. All our approaches to them have been blocked,″ he said.

Such statements sharply contrast with the tough talk early in the coup, when Johnny Koroma’s resistance to international mediators’ attempts at negotiations sparked Nigeria’s bombardment.

Still, they have ruled out meeting Nigeria’s demand that Kabbah, who was elected in February 1996, be returned to power.

Koroma said Kabbah’s tribal-based style of leadership had divided the country and contributed to the collapse of a November cease-fire with rebels of the Revolutionary United Front. Johnny Koroma has invited the RUF, which waged a six-year civil war, to join him in running the country.

``If Kabbah wants to return, I can assure you that peace will not return easily to Sierra Leone,″ Samuel Koroma said.

Coup leaders plan a government of national unity, he added, but said details were not being divulged yet to avoid provoking political opposition.

Thousands of foreigners have fled the capital since May 25, including about 2,500 airlifted out by U.S. military helicopters. Outside the beachfront Cape Sierra Hotel, more potential evacuees waited Saturday for ships to ferry them to Conakry, Guinea.

Lebanese businessmen have been chartering the ships, which have carried out several hundred people, mainly Lebanese civilians.

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