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Friday, September 3, 1999 Published at 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK

World: Africa

UN plea over Sierra Leone children

Children at a camp for war wounded in Freetown

By BBC West Africa Correspondent Mark Doyle

A senior United Nations official has made an impassioned plea to the international community, especially Britain, to help the children of Sierra Leone in the same way that they aided children affected by the war in Kosovo.

Olara Otunnu, the UN Secretary General's special representative for children, who is visiting Sierra Leone, said that more than half of the estimated 3m people displaced by the war there were children and that the suffering they had endured, including abduction, rape and mutilation, was beyond belief.

[ image: Olara Otunna: Shocked by what he saw]
Olara Otunna: Shocked by what he saw
He said he had been deeply shocked by the suffering in Kosovo, where he had been able to help mobilize international support, but he added that what he had learned in Sierra Leone was unbelievable.

Girls as young as twelve had been abducted and repeatedly raped by rebels; boys had had their parents and grandparents killed before their very eyes and then had their own hands chopped off.

Precarious situation

Olara Otunnu said there were at least 1.5m Sierra Leonean children in desperate need of help.

He appealed for the humanitarian solidarity, which rich countries such as Britain had shown in Kosovo, to be repeated in Sierra Leone and he hoped that the fact the children of Sierra Leone were black and not white would not affect that solidarity.

Britain - the former colonial power in Sierra Leone - has led the international community in aiding Sierra Leone, but since a peace deal was signed between the warring factions a few months ago very little has been done to demobilize the various armies and militias.

[ image: Freetown children rehearse a play about abduction]
Freetown children rehearse a play about abduction
Mr Otunnu said the situation was still precarious and dangerous. Only a few hundred combatants have been demobilized and it is estimated, he said, that there are still a total of 25,000 men still under arms.

The UN official said it was imperative that the rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, who is still outside the country, should return to Sierra Leone to give a push to the peace process.

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