Sierra Leone Talks Bog Down
LOME, Togo (AP) _ Peace talks between Sierra Leone’s government and the nation’s brutal rebel movement bogged down for a second straight day Saturday in a dispute over whether the rebels’ leader would be freed.
Foday Sankoh, the charismatic founder of the rebel Revolutionary United Front, was imprisoned two years ago and sentenced to death for treason in October.
Although Sierra Leonean President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah has granted Sankoh temporary leave to attend the talks at a hotel in Togo’s capital of Lome, the government has wavered over the rebels’ key demand for his freedom.
Rebel and government teams have been meeting since Tuesday in what both sides describe as a ``last chance″ to end the West African nation’s eight-year war that has killed tens of thousands and left more than half a million homeless.
A West African mediator said Friday that Sierra Leone’s government had agreed to free Sankoh, subject to approval by the country’s legal and judicial system.
But Sierra Leonean Justice Minister Solomon Berewa contradicted that report, saying the release wouldn’t be allowed unless the warring sides first reach a peace agreement.
Rebel spokesman Omraie Golley said Saturday that the talks would not make progress until the matter is resolved.
``We are waiting for a clear position from the government,″ Golley said during a break in talks. ``It is a matter of great importance ... and it is unfair for us to continue to advance the peace process as unequal partners.
``While Cpl. Sankoh remains in chains, in effect we all are,″ Golley said.
Sankoh said Friday that his release must be unconditional for there to be successful negotiations.
The international community has condemned the rebels for killing, maiming and raping countless civilians in the fight that has won the rebels much of Sierra Leone’s countryside.
At least 5,000 people were killed in the rebels’ latest offensive on Freetown, the capital, in January.