Sierra Leone Leader Makes Demands
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) _ The jailed founder of Sierra Leone’s rampaging rebel force has demanded his freedom in exchange for a cease-fire in the nation’s mounting civil war, a senior U.N. official said today.
It was still unclear whether Sierra Leone’s President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah would agree to this and other conditions, said U.N. special representative Francis Okelo.
Foday Sankoh, the founder of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front rebel alliance, made the demands during three hours of talks Tuesday in the Guinean capital, Conakry. The negotiations were attended by government ministers from Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Togo and Guinea.
Sankoh has been jailed at a secret location by Sierra Leone’s government since a court in the capital, Freetown, convicted him of high treason and mass murder in October. He was transported to Tuesday’s talks in a prison uniform.
``Sankoh said he is completely committed to peace and that he doesn’t believe in a military solution for Sierra Leone,″ Okelo said.
Okelo was to fly today to Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, to present Kabbah with Sankoh’s conditions. Besides his freedom, the rebel leader is demanding official recognition of the RUF, which has been accused by aid officials and civilian witnesses of mass atrocities against unarmed villagers.
Okelo said the Nigerian-led West African intervention force, ECOMOG, had pushed rebels from much of Sierra Leone’s battered capital and calm was slowly returning.
The city had been heavily damaged by shelling and raging fires and casualties were ``significant, although we don’t know how many,″ Okelo said.
Rebel snipers continued to fire at ECOMOG troops carrying out clean-up operations in the city, he said.
Lasana Kouyate, the executive secretary of the Economic Community of West African States, said Tuesday the insurgents were ``burning everything in their path.″
The rebel’s military commander last week rejected the idea of talks and demanded to see Sankoh.
Gen. Sam Bockarie promised Tuesday to free an Italian missionary priest but denied knowing about two other Roman Catholic clerics allegedly kidnapped by his fighters.
Bockarie confirmed that one priest, the Rev. Mario Guerra, was being held by his fighters for ``his own safety″ and would be turned over to church officials when ``the security situation allows.″
Bockarie, who declined to reveal Guerra’s location, said the priest was being held to prevent pro-government forces from killing him and blaming it on the rebels.
The rebel leader said he knew nothing about the two other priests, the Rev. Maurizio Boa and the Rev. Giuliano Pini. The Vatican said the two were kidnapped last week by rebels who had promised to take them to see Guerra.
Bockarie would neither confirm nor deny whether his forces were behind an attack on a government convoy in downtown Freetown on Sunday that killed Associated Press cameraman Myles Tierney and seriously injured the news organization’s West Africa bureau chief, Ian Stewart.
Liberian Vice President Enoch Dogolea on Tuesday denied Liberian support for the rebels. He made his comments following talks with Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema in Lome, the Togolese capital.
The U.N. refugee agency, meanwhile, warned Tuesday of a possible humanitarian disaster in Freetown because hundreds of thousands of people have been trapped in their homes without water and unable to go outside to get food.
In a related development, the U.N. Security Council decided Tuesday to maintain a 70-member observer force for Sierra Leone for two more months. The force has been withdrawn to Guinea due to the fighting.