TITLE=SIERRA LEONE / U-N (L)
INTRO: The stand-off continues in Sierra Leone
between the United Nations and a rebel group believed
to be holding more than 300 U-N peacekeepers captive.
U-N officials in New York worry the total number of
hostages could be close to 500. Negotiations to free
the peacekeepers are underway between high level
delegations from several African countries. But as V-
O-A's John Pitman reports from Sierra Leone's capital,
Freetown, there have been no breakthroughs and worried
civilians who can are beginning to leave the capital.
TEXT: On average, the Paramount helicopter service
that ferries passengers from Freetown to the Lungi
International Airport flies about three round-trips a
But over the last two days, Paramount's helicopters
have been flying up to 11 round-trips a day, carrying
out civilians who fear the current crisis between the
United Nations and the Revolutionary United Front, the
R-U-F, could escalate into another full-scale war.
And civilians are not the only ones leaving. The
United Nations, which is at the center of the dispute,
is also evacuating its non-essential personnel to
A travel agent who books flights for Paramount said on
Saturday that many of the outbound passengers
complained of a deterioration of the security
situation in Freetown, which some fear could come
under renewed rebel attack.
"People don't want to be caught off guard again," said
travel agent Solomon Johnson, referring to the R-U-F's
surprise attack on Freetown in January of 1999 -- an
assault that left more than five-thousand people dead
before West African peacekeepers pushed the rebels
/// Opt /// Mr. Johnson said the extra flights were
good for Paramount's business in the short term. "But
long-term," he added, "it's not in the nation's
interests since these trips are all one-way." /// End
Mr. Johnson said most of the civilians leaving
Freetown are expatriates -- mainly the families of
Lebanese, Indian and Nigerian business owners.
Ordinary Sierra Leoneans are also increasingly worried
about the future. Unconfirmed rumors about rebel
troop movements east of the capital are rampant. On
Saturday, a group of Catholic missionaries told
reporters they had even seen R-U-F soldiers wearing U-
N uniforms and driving U-N vehicles near the town of
Lunsar, about 100 kilometers east of Freetown.
In response to these rumors about R-U-F troop
movements, the pro-government Kamajor militia has
reportedly started re-mobilizing more than 30-thousand
fighters in the south and east of the country.
None of these rumors have been independently
confirmed, and movement in the interior of the country
has become extremely difficult, with the United
Nations scaling back the number of helicopter flights
it sends into troubled areas. U-N officials
nonetheless remain confident of UNAMSIL's [EDS: the U-
N peacekeeping contingent's] ability to defend the
capital and say civilians should not worry.
At the heart of this crisis is the fate of UNAMSIL
peacekeepers believed to be held captive by the R-U-F.
The United Nations says it is holding R-U-F leader
Foday Sankoh personally responsible for the detention
of its troops, as well as for a deadly attack on
Kenyan peacekeepers last Tuesday that left four
U-N Secretary General Koffi Annan has asked for and
received high level delegations from several African
governments to help mediate the dispute between the
United Nations and the R-U-F. Mali, Liberia and
Nigeria are involved in the discussions, which
continued Saturday behind closed doors.
For his part, Mr. Sankoh remains defiant in the face
of the U-N's accusations, charging the world body with
mounting a propaganda campaign to discredit him.
/// BEGIN OPT ///
Mr. Sankoh's spokesman, Eldred Collins, said Saturday
the R-U-F was not holding any U-N personnel against
their will, and was, in fact, willing to help the
United Nations look for peacekeepers who, in his
words, might have gotten "scattered" in Sierra Leone's
/// COLLINS ACT ///
We do not take hostage. There was a clash and,
you know, you have a great vegetation -- the
terrain. Maybe most of those people (the
peacekeepers) don't know the terrain. They are
scattered all over. The United Nations, or the
UNAMSIL, should have waited for some time so
that they can see if their men are hiding or
/// END ACT ///
Mr. Collins said some of the U-N peacekeepers "took
refuge" with R-U-F units after getting lost -- an
explanation that stands in sharp contrast with the U-
N's claim that R-U-F fighters have surrounded or
physically disarmed peacekeepers.
/// END OPT ///
While the stand-off over the fate of the peacekeepers
continues, Sierra Leone's government says it remains
engaged in the negotiations with Mr. Sankoh, with
President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah reportedly speaking to
the rebel leader on the phone.
At the same time, however, a government spokesman said
Saturday in a broadcast interview that he was, in his
words, "disturbed," that so many UNAMSIL peacekeepers
could be detained without putting up a fight. (SIGNED)
06-May-2000 15:54 PM EDT (06-May-2000 1954 UTC)
Source: Voice of America
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