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Wednesday, May 19, 1999 Published at 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK

World: Africa

Sierra Leone ceasefire 'first step to peace'

Sierra Leone's soldiers have been unable to defeat the rebels

Residents in Sierra Leone's capital reacted with cautious optimism after a ceasefire was signed between the forces of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and rebel leader Foday Sankoh.

The agreement commences on 24 May with peace talks starting the day after.

Sierra Leone
In Freetown hospitals and amputee camps, victims of rebel atrocities expressed hope that eight years of civil war could soon be over.

At the city's main amputee camp, where dozens of children limped around on one leg and adults with amputated ears, hands, and lacerated lips sat quietly, many described the ceasefire "as the first step to peace".

Aid breakthrough

Traders said they looked forward to being able to transport their goods along Sierra Leone's previously blocked highways, and truckers said they could now travel into the interior "without fear."

Mark Doyle: A rare piece of good news from Sierra Leone
The ceasefire accord, announced on Tuesday, was brokered by Togo's President Gnassingbe Eyadema and signed in the presence of US special envoy to Africa Reverend Jesse Jackson.

It will allow for vital food and medical aid to reach areas previously cut off by fighting and calls for the immediate release of prisoners of war and the deployment of a UN military observer force to ensure that the truce is respected.

'War against poverty'

President Kabbah and Mr Sankoh signed a ceasefire accord in Abidjan in November 1996.

However, the deal did little to halt the fighting and the following May the president was ousted by junior army officers quickly backed by the rebel RUF.

This regime itself was the ousted nine months later by the Nigerian-led West African intervention force, Ecomog.

Speaking after the signing, President Kabbah expressed optimism for future peace. "For Sierra Leoneans, war should now be against ignorance, poverty and disease," he said in a speech in central Lome.

Mr Sankoh said: "Today is a memorable day for Sierra Leone ... I call for my brothers to be patient and for a lasting peace to be implemented."

But the BBC West Africa Correspondent Mark Doyle says that enforcing the ceasefire may be difficult, because both government and rebels use militia forces over whom they have varying degrees of control.

Complex negotiations

President Kabbah arrived in Lome on Tuesday, after a series of complex negotiations involving UN, American and Togolese officials.

[ image: Mr Sankoh was freed by President Kabbah to allow negotiations to start]
Mr Sankoh was freed by President Kabbah to allow negotiations to start
Mr Sankoh has been in the Togolese capital for several weeks consulting his field commanders as part of preparations for unconditional direct talks with the Sierra Leonean Government.

The two were seen separately entering a presidential building in the capital, shortly before lunch time local time.

Also there were the American special envoy for Africa, Jesse Jackson, and the Togolese President, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who is the current chairman of the Economic Community of West African States.

Brutal war

The ceasefire is a rare piece of good news from a country where the warring sides have fought themselves to a standstill.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the war and hundreds of thousands have fled to take refuge in neighbouring states. The rebels have committed widespread atrocities against civilians, which have been repeatedly condemned by the UN Security Council.

Sierra Leone has little strategic importance for the world's powers and the UN has limited its interventions to promising peace monitors only after a credible ceasefire has been put in place by the two sides.

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