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Monday, 11 March, 2002, 16:26 GMT
Sankoh murder trial begins
Sankoh (r) with his civilian captors shortly before he was turned in to authorities in Sierra Leone
Foday Sankoh (right) was arrested in May 2000
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By the BBC's Tom McKinley in Freetown
line
Sierra Leone rebel leader Foday Sankoh and 49 members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) have appeared in court to answer charges of murder.

The charges were brought last week, after a state of emergency enabling the government to detain the accused without trial was lifted.

Most of the civil war's atrocities will be dealt with by a United Nations special court.

But this case relates to an incident in May 2000, when Mr Sankoh supporters allegedly killed 21 protesters after a peace deal had been signed.

Clash concerns

Foday Sankoh arrived in court amid tight security and much apprehension.

The RUF adopted ruthless methods such as amputation during civil war
Amputee
The RUF adopted ruthless methods such as amputation during civil war

There were concerns that former members of the RUF might clash with pro-government supporters.

But the court was cordoned off by armed police and everything went smoothly.

The main defendant looked frail and bemused as he stood in the dock with his RUF colleagues.

Looking at this dreadlocked figure, slumped against the wall, it was hard to believe that this is a man who bears much responsibility for 10 years of bloody civil war in Sierra Leone.

After their handcuffs were removed, the accused stood and listened as the attorney general asked the court for an adjournment.

This was necessary, he said, because the accused had requested legal representation and Sankoh had asked to see a doctor of his own choice.

Peace process

Perhaps the most dramatic event took place when Sankoh was led out of court.

His RUF colleagues began chanting for peace and sang "Halleluiah, praise our God".

Speaking in public for the first time in almost two years, Sankoh turned to a reporter and said: "My only concern is that Freetown is not safe".

It is not clear whether this was a veiled threat or a feeling of personal insecurity, but the comments will certainly raise questions as to whether Sierra Leone's peace process is still on course.

See also:

12 May 00 | Africa
Foday Sankoh: Rebel leader
11 Mar 02 | Africa
Sankoh murder trial begins
05 May 01 | Africa
Controversy over Foday Sankoh
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