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Tuesday, March 9, 1999 Published at 17:22 GMT

World: Africa

Sierra Leone rebels 'want peace'

Nigeria promises Ecomog troops will not be withdrawn at once

By Diplomatic Correspondent Barnaby Mason in Abuja

The beleaguered Sierra Leonean President, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, has said he has no option but to come to terms with the rebels who have brought the country to its knees.

Sierra Leone
The president was speaking after a meeting in the Nigerian capital Abuja with the visiting UK Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and the Nigerian military leader, General Abdulsalami Abubakar.

Mr Kabbah said he had reason to believe the rebels wanted peace.

For his part, General Abubakar promised there would be no sudden withdrawal of Nigerian peacekeeping troops.

[ image: President Kabbah: Believes rebels want peace]
President Kabbah: Believes rebels want peace
The 5,000 Nigerian soldiers in Sierra Leone, the bulk of the West African peacekeeping force Ecomog, are playing a large role in keeping at bay the RUF rebels who have carried out repeated atrocities against civilians.

General Abubakar said Nigeria was not going to wake up after its transition to democracy at the end of May and tell Nigerian troops to come home.

But as peace became established in Sierra Leone, there would be a gradual understanding that the soldiers were not needed.

Nigerian interest in stability

The UK is the largest western supporter of Ecomog. Mr Cook said the Nigerians recognised the importance of maintaining stability in Sierra Leone: It was in their own interests.

Mr Cook said there should be a dual-track approach - a strong Ecomog but also negotiations about reconciliation with those rebels willing to lay down their arms and be reintegrated into society.

This message from both Britain and Nigeria clearly went home. President Kabbah of Sierra Leone said that in a war you had to come to terms with your adversary at some stage or other.

He said he had been talking to the rebels and they had given him reason to believe they wanted peace. He was sure a way out of the problem could be found.

'Managed exit'

The UK does not want Nigeria to set a date for pulling out of Sierra Leone, since that would remove any incentive for the rebels to negotiate.

UK officials talk of a managed exit - managed with a negotiating process and the gradual stabilisation of the situation.

But the new democratically elected president of Nigeria, General Olusegun Obasanjo, will have to pay more attention to popular feeling than the outgoing military regime.

The war in Sierra Leone has killed hundreds of Nigerian troops and is costing about $1m a day.

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