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Wednesday, October 13, 1999 Published at 17:43 GMT 18:43 UK

World: Africa

Rebel leaders tour Sierra Leone

Nigerian peacekeepers are accompanying the rebel leaders

By West Africa correspondent, Mark Doyle

Rebel leaders in Sierra Leone have begun a tour of the country which United Nations peacekeepers there hope will consolidate the ceasefire signed earlier this year.

The rebel leaders, including Corporal Foday Sankoh and Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Paul Koroma, recently returned to the capital, Freetown, under a peace agreement.

Sierra Leone
They had led an insurgency against the democratically elected Sierra Leone Government, which made at least two million people homeless and killed many thousands.

But since the peace agreement was signed in July, there's been a gradual improvement in the security situation.

The aim of the rebel leaders' tour is for them to make contact with their men in remote jungle locations and so, hopefully, consolidate the peace process.

UN sources said the two rebel commanders, accompanied by UN peacekeepers and members of the Nigerian led peace enforcement army in Sierra Leone, were starting their tour in the northern town of Port Loko, the site of heavy fighting during the war.

There, the rebel commanders would meet with delegations of fighters from the bush.

Deep suspicion

The Sierra Leone war has been characterised by violent splits in various armed groups and although there's been no major fighting for several months, there is potentially dangerous confusion about where the armed men are.

This is dangerous because many rebels are short of food and they've raised tensions by stealing from civilians' meagre rations.

Most Sierra Leoneans hope that the ultimate affect of the contacts between the rebel commanders and their men will be to encourage disarmament - but this is bound to take time.

Suspicions between the former warring factions run deep.

Government and rebel figures are now engaged in jockeying for power and Sierra Leonean politicians have traditionally favoured having fire power in reserve in case normal politics fails.

Nevertheless, rebel leaders are co-operating with the peace process for the first time in years and many Sierra Leoneans whose lives have been shattered by the war will see this as a cause for optimism. .

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