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Wednesday, 10 May, 2000, 10:29 GMT 11:29 UK
Refugees arrive in Freetown
People flee the advance of rebels
The rebels' advance is prompting people to flee
Thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees have fled rural areas and begun arriving in the capital, Freetown, to escape a reported rebel advance towards the city.



Freetown is not going to fall to the RUF

UN spokesman David Wimhurst
The exodus came after the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) captured the key town of Masiaka - 60km east of Freetown - on Monday night.

Fears of an attack on the capital have been increased by the disappearance of RUF leader, Foday Sankoh.

Mr Sankoh's house in Freetown was attacked and overrun by pro-government forces on Monday.


Foday Sankoh
Foday Sankoh has been missing since Monday
Unconfirmed reports said he had been whisked away by UN forces. But the UN appears to have no knowledge of Mr Sankoh's whereabouts.

"We are anxious to find a way to contact him," UN spokesman David Wimhurst said.

Other accounts say he is being kept in protective custody by the Sierra Leonean army.

But some people fear he may be in the bush, preparing to lead an offensive which would spark a complete resumption of the nation's brutal civil war.

UN officials say their inability to contact Mr Sankoh makes it very difficult to secure the release of about 500 UN troops thought to have been abducted by the RUF.

Stopping the rebels

Pro-government forces have said they are sending reinforcements to the area around Masiaka to counter the rebels.


Bristih paras in Sierra Leone
Sierra Leoneans want British troops to play a more direct role in enforcing peace
West African leaders meeting in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, warned on Tuesday that they were prepared to use military force to prevent any illegal attempt to seize power.

"Freetown is not going to fall to the RUF," the Mr Wimhurst said.

A statement at the end of the summit said the leaders were considering sending back the West African peacekeeping troops who were withdrawn only last month.

In Freetown itself, British soldiers have completed the evacuation of the majority of European and Commonwealth nationals seeking to escape the deepening crisis.


HMS Ocean
UK aircraft carriers are on their way to Sierra Leone
A UK Defence Ministry spokeswoman said about 320 UK, European Union and Commonwealth citizens had been airlifted out of the capital. Most are reported to have been put on planes bound for Senegal.

UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said British soldiers might remain in the country until the UN military presence had been strengthened.

Battle

The battle for Masiaka lasted four hours. A UN contingent of 220 Nigerian and Guinean soldiers withdrew after exhausting their ammunition in an exchange of fire with the assailants, Mr Wimhurst said.



They were unable to reach Freetown because the road was blocked by the RUF and had to make a longer journey to Bo instead.

The UN is mandated to oversee a peace agreement between the rebels and the government.

The statement issued after the Abuja talks strongly condemned the rebels for detaining the UN troops.


Sierra Leone crisis
2 May: Kenyan peacekeepers killed, 92 UN staff captured by rebels
3 May: Rebel leader Foday Sankoh promises to release prisoners
4 May: Six UN staff freed, 208 Zambian peacekeepers detained
6 May: 226 more Zambian troops reported missing
6/7 May: Confusion over reported assault on Freetown
7 May: US and UK advise nationals to leave
7 May: Britain sends military taskforce
It said the rebels risked losing their general amnesty under the peace accord reached after the country's civil war and could face a war crimes tribunal.

Nigerian vice-president Alhaji Atiku Abubakar told the BBC that Nigerian troops were ready to return to Sierra Leone as peacekeepers if the UN paid the bill.

He said Nigeria also wanted unrestricted operational orders for its forces.

Nigerian troops dealt decisively with the rebel forces at various critical stages in the civil war, in contrast to the lightly-armed UN troops, who have proved unable to cope with the crisis.

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See also:

09 May 00 | Africa
Can the UN force restore peace?
09 May 00 | Africa
Fear and anger in Freetown
09 May 00 | Africa
BBC's key role in Sierra Leone
04 May 00 | Africa
Renewed bid to free UN troops
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