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Sierra Leone Rebel Leader Captured

May 17, 2000

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) _ Days after disappearing, the rebel leader whose followers burned, looted, maimed and killed across Sierra Leone was captured Wednesday by pro-government forces, who shot him in the leg, stripped him naked, and turned him over to government officials.

The seizure of Foday Sankoh, whose Revolutionary United Front has terrorized civilians, prompted joyous celebrations in the streets of Freetown, where thousands have died during eight years of civil war.

Questions remained whether Sankoh’s capture would speed an end to Sierra Leone’s reignited civil war _ or spur his Revolutionary United Front followers to even more violence.

In at least one positive sign, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard announced in New York that Liberia had reported the rebels freeing another 80 U.N. peacekeepers held by the renegades deep in the forested interior of this West African nation.

The latest releases, among 500 U.N. personnel captured earlier this month, were moved to Liberia’s remote border town of Foya where more than 100 of their colleagues had been delivered over the weekend.

Helicopters were gradually ferrying the freed captives to Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, and then to Freetown. The latest releases brought the number of peacekeepers still in captivity to around 270.

Sankoh was captured early Wednesday next door to his home in Freetown, which he fled May 8 after RUF fighters opened fire on thousands of demonstrators, killing 19, witnesses said.

A cluster of people stood around a pool of blood near Sankoh’s ransacked home Wednesday, discussing his capture in lively tones.

Tipped off by civilians, pro-government soldiers confronted Sankoh and his bodyguards as they approached the house from the surrounding hills, witnesses said. Gunshots rang out and the rebel leader was wounded in the leg.

Within minutes, a mob formed. Sankoh was disrobed by the jubilant crowd and taken to the home of ex-junta leader Johnny Paul Koroma, who heads the forces that captured Sankoh.

A photo taken by one witness showed Sankoh crammed into a four-wheel drive vehicle, with one captor holding him by the neck and another gesturing toward the rebel leader as if showing off a prize.

``It is a victory for Sierra Leone, a victory for common sense and a victory for the peace process,″ said Koroma’s spokesman, Prince Nicol. The fighters cheered and raised their guns in triumph in front of their leader’s home.

At the request of Sierra Leone, a British helicopter flew Sankoh to nearby Lungi Airport, then to an unidentified ``secure location,″ where he was being held by Sierra Leonean military police, said Lt. Cmdr. Tony Cramp, spokesman for the British forces in the country.

The British troops are in Sierra Leone to assist with the U.N. peacekeeping mission. Britain is the former colonial power in Sierra Leone.

As word of Sankoh’s capture spread, people rushed into the streets to rejoice.

``The masses must decide what to do with him,″ said S.K. Shyllon, an engineer. ``But I say he is not fit to exist ... He made the people of this country suffer for nine years.″

Asked what would happen to Sankoh, government spokesman Septimus Kai Kai said: ``A lot of these things are being sorted out now. Our main concern now is that we can ... bring peace to our country.″

Many in Sierra Leone believe Sankoh should be stripped of the amnesty granted in a July peace accord, which also gave the rebel leader a ministerial position in a power-sharing government.

``Enough is enough,″ said Amara Bangura, who heard the gunshots near Sankoh’s home and rushed to the scene. ``He has to be tried for all the atrocities he has committed in this country.″

New York-based Human Rights Watch called for Sankoh to tried for mass crimes against humanity committed by his soldiers and officers.

``Foday Sankoh must not be subjected to mob rule,″ said the group’s Africa director, Peter Takirambudde. ``Otherwise, the cycle of violence in Sierra Leone will only continue.″

Sankoh was previously captured in 1997, and later convicted of treason and sentenced to death. His rebels responded by launching an offensive that culminated with an invasion of Freetown in January 1999. They were driven out of the city by West African troops several weeks later.

Sankoh was released to sign the July peace deal. The fragile accord unraveled this month when Sankoh’s rebels seized 500 U.N. peacekeepers and attacked U.N. forces.

Tuesday evening, rebel fighters attacked U.N. peacekeepers in the northwestern town of Port Loko, U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst said. One Nigerian peacekeeper was killed and five injured in the two-hour firefight. Six pro-government soldiers were also killed and five injured, he said.

Early Wednesday, British troops killed four rebels in a battle 10 miles east of Freetown’s airport, the British military said. The British, who responded after coming under fire, suffered no casualties, the statement said.

During their eight-year campaign against the government, the rebels killed tens of thousands of people and mutilated and dismembered many more in a bid to gain power through intimidation.