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Thursday, February 11, 1999 Published at 13:39 GMT

World: Africa

Major rebel attack in Sierra Leone

Attack after several weeks of extreme tension, say aid workers

Rebels in Sierra Leone have mounted a major attack on the eastern diamond mining town of Kenema, causing tens of thousands of people to flee.

Sierra Leone
Aid workers in eastern Sierra Leone said the key diamond-mining town of Kenema was attacked by the rebels after several weeks of extreme tension in the eastern part of the country.

The attack is the first major offensive against a large town in southern Sierra Leone since the insurgents began their latest military campaign against the elected government late last year.

In January, the rebels almost took control of the capital, Freetown, from a Nigerian-led intervention force which is backing the government, but they were pushed back.

Our West Africa correspondent, Mark Doyle, says the latest fighting illustrates that the rebels are still a military force to be reckoned with.

Kenema is situated near the border with neighbouring Liberia, which is accused by the UN and the United States of backing the rebellion against a government which owes its survival to a Nigerian-led intervention force.

The refugee problem

Latest reports from the Nigerian military say that Kenema is back under their control, but this can't be independently confirmed.

The UN's World Food Programme says that tens of thousands of people who had taken refuge in Kenema from earlier fighting have fled for their lives once again and are now trying to make their way to Sierra Leone's main southern city of Bo.

The aid agency said the Nigerians were trying to stop the refugees from moving into Bo.

Our correspondent, Mark Doyle, says that in the past the Nigerians have been wary of allowing large movements of displaced people because civilians have been used by the rebels to obscure military deployments.

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