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Wednesday, February 11, 1998 Published at 07:52 GMT

World: Africa

Refugees flee Freetown fighting
image: [ Sierra Leone's capital Freetown: the scene of the fighting ]
Sierra Leone's capital Freetown: the scene of the fighting

Thousands of people are fleeing eastern Freetown in Sierra Leone as heavy shelling and fighting continues between Nigerian troops and forces loyal to the military regime.

BBC West Africa Correspondent Mark Doyle says refugees are arriving in Guinea (0'43")
Refugees from the conflict have begun arriving by boat in neighbouring Guinea, our West Africa Correspondent in the Sierra Leonean capital of Freetown said on Wednesday, but it is still too early to say exactly how many have fled.

[ image: Nigerian troops from ECOMOG]
Nigerian troops from ECOMOG
The Nigerians are clashing with the military government's troops on several fronts in the outskirts of the city.

Dozens of people have been killed and hundreds wounded in five days of fighting. Some of the wounded have been taken to hospital in wheelbarrows.

Since dawn on Tuesday the sound of shelling has boomed around the hills above the capital and in the eastern suburbs.

Thousands of people have been moving through the narrow streets of the city trying to escape the artillery and small arms fire.

The Nigerians say they are determined to flush out Sierra Leone's military regime, which was condemned by the international community for seizing power in a coup last May.

The Nigerian commander, Colonel Maxwell Khobie, said he was intending to take Freetown on Tuesday but it is not clear what progress he has made.

[ image: The military junta seized power last May]
The military junta seized power last May
Forces loyal to the military government are resisting fiercely. A spokesman for the regime said the fighting would continue to the end.

As well as regular troops, the Sierra Leone military are supported by a tough militia force. In addition, unarmed civilians have now begun to mount roadblocks in the centre of Freetown. They say they are searching for infiltrators of the Kamajor militia who, like the Nigerians, want a return to power of the Sierra Leone civilian government.

Food shortages

The United Nations World Food Programme says the fighting will have a disastrous effect on people already facing serious food shortages; it says nearly 250,000 Sierra Leoneans and Liberians now need urgent assistance.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also said it was "extremely concerned" about civilians in Freetown.

The local Red Cross also warned that "urgent medical supplies will soon be needed to deal with the increasing number of wounded civilians."

According to some reports, at least 25 people including a dozen civilians have been killed since fighting broke out but details of other casualties remain sketchy. The BBC correspondent in Freetown says there is very little food available in the markets, and prices have risen sharply. The only commercial bank operating since the coup in May closed on Monday.

The BBC correspondent says people are confused about what is happening - they do not believe the reports put out by either side and rumours are rife.

Even before the latest fighting, imports to Sierra Leone were restricted by an economic embargo imposed soon after the coup.

Cease-fire breached

Both sides have blamed each other for the latest round of fighting, which breaches a cease-fire agreed last October.

The truce was part of an accord under which the Sierra Leone military regime promised to step down by next April.

The junta has cast doubt on whether it will be able to meet the deadline because of problems in implementing the peace accord.

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