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The BBC's Mark Doyle in Freetown:
"The credibility of the world body to deal with this situation is now at stake"
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The BBC's Mark Devenport in New York
"The UN don't have the military muscle"
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Tim Spicer, Sandline International
"They should be able to return fire if attacked"
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Friday, 5 May, 2000, 18:34 GMT 19:34 UK
Sierra Leone hostage crisis deepens
Signing of the deal
The UN believes that Mr Sankoh's actions violate the 1999 peace deal
Sierra Leone's peace process slipped further into crisis as a convoy of 200 UN Zambian soldiers was taken captive by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

They were detained and disarmed near the northern town of Makeni after being sent to reinforce other peacekeepers under rebel attack.

Another 24 UN staff were taken hostage in the eastern town of Kailahun.

The UN - now facing a major test of its credibility - says 318 of its staff are now being detained, including the nearly 100 peacekeepers seized on Tuesday.

The efforts right now are political in nature. If that fails, I don't want to speculate, what happens next

Fred Eckhard
UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said there were reports that the RUF had commandeered and were using UN armoured personnel carriers.

Earlier in the day, RUF leader Foday Sankoh ordered the release of six hostages, including a four-man Russian helicopter crew and two civilians, who were allowed to fly back to Freetown.

Their release was mediated by Liberian President Charles Taylor - a longtime ally of Mr Sankoh.

Political pressure

The UN's Mr Eckhard said negotiations were still under way to try to resolve the crisis.

Foday Sankoh
Mr Sankoh: thinly veiled threat to UN
"The efforts right now are political in nature - to get anyone who has any influence with Foday Sankoh to convince him to comply with the peace agreement. If that fails, I don't want to speculate, what happens next," Mr Eckhard said.

Our correspondent says that the UN's efforts are primarily political, largely because they don't have the kind of military muscle they would like to combat the rebels.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been rallying African leaders to exert pressure on the rebels.

He said that he had enlisted the help of African political heavyweights such as Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, to defuse the explosive stand-off.

Malian President Alpha Oumar Konare is said to be on his way to Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone map
Mr Annan has also called for a rapid-reaction force to be deployed immediately in Sierra Leone.

However, the United States, Britain and France rejected UN requests to send troops.

A team of British military experts is preparing to go to the country. One British army officer is among those detained.

Fragile peace

Mr Sankoh accused the peacekeepers of trying to force his fighters to disarm and had earlier warned the UN not to reinforce military positions near his stronghold.

"We don't want violence here again. It's provocation. You provoke the man, you make a big mistake," Mr Sankoh said in a BBC interview.

The peacekeeping force - the UN's largest - is in Sierra Leone to try to support a fragile peace deal in a war which has made millions homeless.

UN says the RUF may be using its armoured personnel carriers
Its mandate envisages disarmament and demobilisation of an estimated 45,000 fighters ahead of elections in early 2001.

The current crisis, which started when the RUF fighters destroyed two UN disarmament camps on Tuesday, is the most serious challenge to the peace process in Sierra Leone for over a year.

Observers say that in the power struggle going on between Foday Sankoh and the United Nations, Mr Sankoh seems to hold all the cards.

The UN is very keen to negotiate its way out of this situation and the UN secretary-general has been trying to put pressure on Mr Sankoh to release the UN staff unharmed and put the peace process back on track.

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04 May 00 | Africa
Renewed bid to free UN troops
01 May 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Farewell to the general
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