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Monday, February 8, 1999 Published at 08:33 GMT


New line on Sierra Leone rebels

The rebels have terrorised Freetown's civilians

Sierra Leone's president has changed his policy towards the rebels who are seeking to overthrow him.

Sierra Leone
In a broadcast on state radio, President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah said he was prepared to allow a rebel delegation to meet their jailed leader Foday Sankoh.

Mr Sankoh also said he would be prepared to begin negotiations with the Revolutionary United Front - the main fighting force behind the continuing insurgency - if Mr Sankoh can persuade it to give up its military campaign. Mr Kabbah also wants the rebels to publicly recognise his government.

A BBC correspondent in Sierra Leone says the president is under pressure from the public to bring about peace.


[ image: President Kabbah: Change of tack]
President Kabbah: Change of tack
The rebels have consistently demanded the release of Mr Sankoh, who is in jail for treason and murder.

Mr Kabbah said: "The idea is to give the rebels an opportunity to ... come up with a clear position on the peace process.

"The international community has agreed to the terms for the rebels to sit down in talks."

However, Mr Kabbah said he would withdraw the talks invitation if the rebels had preconditions of their own.

Nigerian withdrawal

The move follows warnings that Nigeria is planning to withdraw its troops from the West African intervention force, Ecomog, which is fighting the rebels.

On Saturday, Nigerian President Abdulsalami Abubakar said his country's military - which leads Ecomog - had been overstretched by the war.

Reports say the prospect of a Nigerian pullout has sparked panic among many civilians, with hundreds queuing up for passports.

The rebels are accused of killing, maiming and raping thousands of people in their campaign to oust Mr Kabbah's government.


[ image: Many civilians were trapped by fighting in January]
Many civilians were trapped by fighting in January
Most of the rebels have now been driven from the capital, Freetown, but pockets of resistance remain in some neighbourhoods.

Britain accused

In a separate development, Britain has rejected allegations by the rebels that it is getting involved in the conflict.

The defence ministry said a British frigate off the Sierra Leonean coast was mainly there to help with humanitarian operations.

But the RUF said British troops were in Freetown to protect British business interests and described the deployment as "hostile behaviour".



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