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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 July, 2003, 14:00 GMT 15:00 UK
Foday Sankoh: The cruel rebel
Foday Sankoh in May 2000
Sankoh promised to fight corruption
Foday Sankoh led a vicious rebel group whose fighters used machetes to hack off the hands, feet, lips and ears of Sierra Leone's civilians and raped thousands of girls and women.

He was idolised as a lion by his supporters, but few others in Sierra Leone will be mourning his death.

The former army corporal, wedding photographer and TV cameraman formed the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), whose 10-year terror campaign was launched from neighbouring Liberia.

He promised to share Sierra Leone's vast diamond wealth more widely but this was never implemented in areas under his control.

Sankoh, born on 17 October 1937, had faced a 17-count war-crimes indictment in a United Nations backed tribunal, which included crimes against humanity, rape, sexual slavery and extermination.

Those who met the tubby RUF leader before his 2000 arrest and subsequent stroke spoke of the charismatic, ebullient character of the man known to his fighters as "Popay" or "Papa".

This was regarded as a key factor behind his ability to rally thousands of impoverished youths behind his rebellion against the wealthy Freetown political class.

His rebels also recruited by abducting young boys and forcing them to kill family members, so they were unable to continue with their civilian lives.


Sankoh trained in the guerrilla camps of Muammar Gaddafi's Libya where his companions included Charles Taylor, now the embattled president of neighbouring Liberia.

After training in Libya, Sankoh returned with his comrades to Liberia where he took part in the early stages of the rebellion in 1990 that was to bring Mr Taylor to power.

RUF victim
Many thousands were maimed by Sankoh's RUF rebels

When Mr Sankoh - together with two other Libyan-trained comrades, Abu Kanu and Rashid Mansaray - went home to Sierra Leone, they recruited local youths to his Revolutionary United Front.

With the help of Mr Taylor, they launched an insurrection that developed into a civil war.

But what may have started as a high-minded idealistic movement to rid Sierra Leone of its military-backed corrupt politics quickly degenerated into a movement dominated by drunk and drugged impoverished young men seeking opportunities to loot the countryside and enrich themselves.

Abu Kanu and Mansaray, who voiced their distaste of such tactics and threatened Mr Sankoh's leadership, were detained on trumped-up charges and executed.

'World leader'

Military intervention by the UK, Guinea and the United Nations crushed the rebels, and Sierra Leone formally declared the war over in early 2002.

The RUF became a political party and contested the elections held just months later.

Foday Sankoh
His health problems held up the court proceedings

With Sankoh already in prison, Alimamy Pallo Bangura, was its presidential candidate but he received just 1.7% of the vote and the RUFP did not gain a single seat in parliament.

"He has the character of the lion," top rebel official Jonathan Kposowa said during the election campaign.

Mr Sankoh was captured after his rebels killed more than a dozen protesters outside his Freetown home and he had been in UN custody in prisons and hospitals since.

His arrest led to celebrations in the streets of Freetown.

After 22 months in custody, he emerged as a shadow of his former self.

During one court hearing last year, he continuously broke into unexplained fits of laughter and said he was "surprised that I am being tried because I am the leader of the world".

His condition slowed proceedings and following a stroke, Sankoh's last appearances in court were in a wheelchair where he was unable to respond to questions.

The court doctor said he was unable to talk, walk or feed himself.

Sankoh's death from natural causes granted him "a peaceful end that he denied to so many others", according to a statement from the United Nations-backed war crimes court chief prosecutor, David Crane.

Sierra Leone rebel leader dies
30 Jul 03  |  Africa
UN court rejects Sankoh plea
23 Jul 03  |  Africa
Bringing justice to Sierra Leone
17 Jan 02  |  Africa

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