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Wednesday, January 6, 1999 Published at 10:59 GMT

World: Africa

Rebels enter Sierra Leone capital

Government forces are now battling against rebels in the capital

Sierra Leone's government has confirmed that rebel forces loyal to the fomer military regime have entered the capital, Freetown.

The BBC's Mark Doyle: "There is confusion in the city"
In an interview with the BBC, the Information Minister, Julius Spencer, told people living in Freetown to stay at home.

"Anyone found on the streets will be considered as a rebel," he said.

Mr Spencer added that although the situation was very serious, it was going to be dealt with.

Earlier, it was reported that thousands of people were fleeing into the centre of the capital, Freetown, to escape a rebel attack in the eastern suburbs.

BBC Correspondent Paul Welsh: The population has been told to remain calm
Eyewitnesses spoke of people fleeing in vehicles and on foot in the face of heavy gunfire.

According to some reports, the rebels were moving in from the hills overlooking Freetown.

However, the BBC's West Africa Correspondent, Mark Doyle, says the latest fighting in the capital does not necessarily mean the rebels have broken through the government's main defences, or that the government itself is threatened.

He adds that strategically important points in the city, such as the airport, are being defended by thousands of government and Nigerian troops.

Recent rebel gains

On Tuesday, Nigerian jets bombed suspected rebel positions just outside the city, as well as a rebel base further north.

The attacks followed an attempt by the rebels to capture Freetown's airport the day before.

The rebels, together with remnants of the military government ousted last year, have made recent gains in the north of Sierra Leone.

They are loyal to the former military regime of Foday Sankoh, which ousted President Ahmad Kabbah in February 1998.

President Kabbah was restored by Ecomog forces the following month, but the rebel attacks resumed after Foday Sankoh was sentenced to death last October on charges of treason.

The rebels say they want to force President Kabbah's government to negotiate a political settlement - including the release of Foday Sankoh from prison.

The rebels - who regrouped in the bush after President Kabbah was restored to power - have conducted a brutal campaign against the civilian population, severing people's limbs in an attempt to dissuade them from supporting the government.

Our correspondent says it is widely believed that the rebels are currently being supported by Liberian troops.

Although the Liberian government denies this, it has said that some mercenaries from the country may be fighting with the rebel forces.

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