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Friday, February 13, 1998 Published at 18:30 GMT

World: Africa

Nigerian-led force captures Sierra Leonean ministers
image: [ Nigerian-led troops now hold much of Freetown ]
Nigerian-led troops now hold much of Freetown

Several senior officials of Sierra Leone's military government are reported to have been detained as Nigerian-led forces consolidate their control of the capital, Freetown.

The Ecomog intervention force commander, Major-General Timothy Shelpidi, told the BBC that the officials were intercepted flying over Liberia in two helicopters.

They were escorted to an airfield in the Liberian capital Monrovia. The 25 passengers and crew are being questioned by Ecomog, which is seeking to oust the military government in Sierra Leone.

"They are officials, including some ministers of the junta. We do not know their full identities yet but we are investigating," General Shelpidi told Reuters.

There is no word of the whereabouts of Major Johnny Koroma, the leader of last year's coup which ousted the elected civilian government.

UN ambassador James Jonah says: "President Kabbah will soon dispatch an advance team to Freetown." (0'53")
Sierra Leone's ambassador to the UN, James Jonah, says the ousted President, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, and members of his civilian government are preparing to return to Sierra Leone.

He said Ecomog's actions had been justified because diplomatic efforts to topple the military government had failed.

Ecomog tightens grip on the capital

General Shelpidi told the BBC that his troops had captured control of 95% of Freetown. The State House, the headquarters of the military regime, and the parliament building have both been taken.

ECOMOG commander: "Our forces met minimum resistance" (0'31")
He said his force had met minimal resistance and the military leadership had fled in disarray.

However, a spokesman for the Sierra Leonean military government denied they had been pushed out of the capital altogether.

Speaking before the two helicopters were captured, the Sierra Leonean Information Minister, Alliou Kamara, was in defiant mood. He claimed Freetown was just the beginning of the battle.

"We are not going to give ourselves up. This is just the beginning of the battle," said Mr Kamara. "Sierra Leone is ours. This is just the beginning of the battle because our men are determined to defend the sovereignty of this country."

Alliou Kamara: "This is just the beginning of the battle" (0'32")
Winston McCauley of the BBC's African Service speaking from Freetown, said the Ecomog army was in control of the eastern part of the city and the central business area, but there was still fighting in west Freetown.

Meanwhile, the United Nations said aid agencies in the west African country had reported that all stocks of food and medicine had run out or been looted during heavy fighting.

Eyewitnesses in Freetown said people had begun appearing on the streets, celebrating the arrival of the Nigerian soldiers.

[ image: Nigerian troops from Ecomog]
Nigerian troops from Ecomog
Residents in the east of the city spoke of an intense battle as the Nigerians pushed back the government forces.

The residents said dead bodies were lying on the streets and that the main hospital was overwhelmed.

About 250,000 people are reported to have been displaced by the fighting and there is a serious shortage of food.

Fears for civilian population

For nearly a week, the Nigerians have been trying to oust the military regime in Sierra Leone and restore the civilian government overthrown last year.

[ image:  ]
As fighting has spread through the city, civilians have been fleeing their homes. The United Nations refugee agency says 1,400 people have now reached Guinea by sea and many more are expected.

Sergio Viera de Mello, the UN Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said he was deeply concerned about the welfare of civilians and aid workers affected by the fighting, especially in Freetown.

[ image: The hospitals are filling with casualties]
The hospitals are filling with casualties
"The conflict has led to an increasing number of civilian casualties and growing population displacement and has impeded the access required by humanitarian organisations," he said.

More than 3,000 people have taken refuge in the compound of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Warnings of food shortages

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

[ image: Troops of the military government in Freetown]
Troops of the military government in Freetown
Even before the latest fighting, imports to Sierra Leone were restricted by an economic embargo imposed soon after the coup.

Nigeria received a diplomatic mandate from the UN and West African heads of state to mount sanctions against the military government after it overthrew the elected civilian government last May.

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