Sierra Leone Hostages Ordered Free
Aug. 07, 1999
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) _ Sierra Leone's president pressed international aid groups today to give food and medicine to rebel-allied soldiers to help win the release of about 30 hostages, including U.N. workers, abducted four days ago.
President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah told journalists that the United Nations and foreign relief organizations should review their policy of refusing assistance to armed groups ``in this exceptional case.''
The policy is intended to encourage warring sides throughout the world to end their conflicts.
Sierra Leone's government is hobbled by the bloody eight-year civil war that ended with a July 7 peace accord, and authorities do not have the resources to help rebels and their ex-junta soldier allies in this West African nation, Kabbah said.
``This incident is a clear reflection of the need for international assistance to Sierra Leone ... since the reason stated for the abduction is the inability of the government to provide food and other relief materials for the `sobels' (soldiers-turned-rebel),'' Kabbah said.
He did not know when the U.N. employees, aid workers, West African intervention force soldiers and journalists who had been kidnapped Wednesday in the Okra Hills, outside Freetown, would be freed.
Earlier today, the British Broadcasting Company aired an interview with Sierra Leone's Information Minister Julius Spencer, who said the rebels had agreed in principle to release the captives.
``My guess is that it is the modalities which are being worked out now,'' Spencer told the British broadcaster.
Yet a spokesman for Britain's High Commission in Sierra Leone said on condition of anonymity the mission was unaware of any commitment by the captors to release the abductees. A team of British officials is also involved in negotiations to secure their freedom.
Sierra Leone's rebel Revolutionary United Front leader Foday Sankoh said Friday his movement has ordered the captors to free the U.N. employees, aid workers, journalists and West African intervention force soldiers kidnapped Wednesday in the Okra Hills, outside Freetown.
Four rebel Revolutionary United Front officials, who were in the capital to prepare for Sankoh's arrival, were helping in the negotiations.
Sankoh accused U.N. and West African intervention force officials of carelessly provoking the crisis by failing to contact senior rebel officials before sending the delegation into rebel-held territory.
Relations between rebel commanders and former junta soldiers remain murky. The groups theoretically are allied. But many former junta soldiers felt excluded when the rebels signed the peace accord July 7 in the West African nation of Togo.
The kidnapping took place when an international delegation met with junta soldiers, who had said they would free about 150 women and children captured during the war.
After handing over a few civilians, the soldiers turned their guns on the delegation, saying they desperately needed supplies and wanted a meeting with U.N. officials.
By Thursday, the kidnappers released four captives, sending them back to Freetown with demands for food, medicine and political influence.
The kidnappers also want freedom for their leader, Lt. Col. Johnny Paul Koroma, who they believe to be detained by the RUF, a charge Sankoh has dismissed.
Koroma, whose whereabouts are unclear, led a May 1997 coup that ousted Kabbah's government and then allied itself with the RUF rebels. Koroma's junta was itself driven out 10 months later by ECOMOG, the West African intervention force that backs Kabbah.
Most of the remaining captives are Sierra Leonean, though they also include a Canadian, a Russian, a Malaysian, a Liberian and one person from Kyrgyzstan, U.N. officials said.
Twelve U.N. employees, three ECOMOG soldiers, 10 aid workers and three journalists are believed among them.
The civil war has devastated Sierra Leone, and much of Freetown is in ruins. Tens of thousands of people were killed and many more were raped or maimed by the rebels, who waged a macabre campaign of terror in their bid for power.