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Wednesday, 29 March, 2000, 04:13 GMT 05:13 UK
Disarming Sierra Leone's rebels
Foday Sankoh, RUF leader
Foday Sankoh: The rebels still dictate the country's future
By Robin Denselow in Sierra Leone

Abdul Conteh was waiting to give in his weapon.

A former member of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the rebel group that still controls nearly half of Sierra Leone, he had decided to go along with the peace pact signed by the government and the RUF in the Togolese capital Lome, last July.

As the United Nations military observers approached, he handed over his AK47.

Then he was taken to the nearby Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Centre at Port Loko for his reward - food, training, a UN guard to make sure that rebel groups do not arrive to take their revenge, and the promise of $300 to ease his way back to civilian life.

It ought to be an attractive deal for any ex-rebel.

The Lome agreement granted a blanket amnesty for all the atrocities committed over the previous eight years of civil war, a place for their leaders in the new government of national unity, and elections next year.

In return, there was to be mass disarmament, by rebel and pro-government groups alike.

This is a very important process, and we must make sure it goes right

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, British ambassador to the UN
So far, 17,000 men have handed in their weapons, but only 4,000 are from the RUF.

An estimated 15,000 RUF gunmen still control the rebel heartland, which stretches across to the fabulously wealthy diamond areas in the east of Sierra Leone.

For the government, and for the UN, it is a frustrating embarrassment.

The UN has had a bad record in Africa, after the failures in Somalia, Rwanda and Angola, and is desperate for success in Sierra Leone.

So far, 6,000 UN troops have arrived, and by the time the full strength of 11,000 is reached, hopefully by July, this will be the UN's largest deployment in the world.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the British ambassador to the UN, visited has already visited the disarmament centre.
UN peacekeepers
Weapons have been taken from the UN by rebels
"This is a very important process, and we must make sure it goes right," he said.

But already there have been problems. In the area around Port Loko, rebels who have refused to disarm have attacked the camps of local people displaced from their homes by the fighting.

The locals complain they are still being abducted, and that girls are being used as sex slaves, while the UN fails to provide protection.

UN forced to withdraw

Further east, around Makeni, the situation is even more serious. The RUF have yet to disarm and are operating a virtual "state within a state". They have their own jail and their own military police force.

The UN has a presence here, but they peacekeepers are not removing road blocks or taking weapons, even from the child soldiers. In fact it is quite the reverse - weapons have been taken from the UN.

A Guinean contingent, driving to join the UN mission, UNAMSIL, were relieved of rifles, mortars and machine guns, while the Kenyan force in Makeni has lost five rifles, three of which were later returned.

The UN has had other problems. Troops attempting to deploy east towards the diamond fields have been met by armed RUF men and forced to withdraw.

General JV Jetley, UNAMSIL's Indian commander, agreed.

"We do get stopped, because those are areas that are sensitive, and there is a lot of digging going on."

Whims of rebel leaders

Even in Makeni, itself, it is agreed that there are weapons held at every crossroads.

UN military observers say that the use of force is not an option.

Instead, there is the hope that rebels will agree to disarm when a disarmament centre finally opens in Makeni in about five weeks' time.

Some rebels agreed, privately, that they would like to disarm, but it all depends on the whims of RUF rebel leader Foday Sankoh and his local commanders, and whether they honour the agreement they signed.

Mr Sankoh is a difficult man to pin down. He angrily denied he was breaking the Lome agreement by digging for diamonds and claimed he had already told his men to disarm.

Later, he changed tack and said he was about to disarm. "It's a matter of time. We should not be pushed," he said.

In Makeni, the crunch for rebels and UN alike will come when the disarmament centre finally opens, but for the moment, it is still the rebels who dictate the future of Sierra Leone.

Robin Denselow was reporting on Sierra Leone for the Newsnight programme on BBC2

Sierra Leone in crisis

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