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DATE=5/6/2000 TYPE=CORRESPONDENT REPORT TITLE=SIERRA LEONE / U-N (L) NUMBER=2-262067 BYLINE=JOHN PITMAN DATELINE=FREETOWN CONTENT= VOICED AT: 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 day. 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 Guinea-Conakry. 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 out. /// 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 Opt /// 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 Kenyans dead. 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 unfamiliar terrain. /// 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 taking refuge. /// 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) NEB/JP/JP 06-May-2000 15:54 PM EDT (06-May-2000 1954 UTC) NNNN Source: Voice of America .

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