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The BBC's Alan Little
"The day violence nearly pushed the country into the abyss"
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UN Spokesman, David Wimhurst
"Overnight there has been sporadic fire on our positions"
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UK Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon
"We will remain in control of the airport while the UN force builds up"
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Friday, 12 May, 2000, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
Rebels halt advance on Freetown
Freetown residents
Fears of an attack on Freetown may be receding
UK defence sources say that rebel columns converging on the Sierra Leone capital have halted short of Freetown.

The Revolutionary United Front rebels are estimated to number some 15,000 fighters in all, though there is no formal front-line.

The British force commander, General David Richards, was quoted on Friday as saying that his troops now intended to help the Sierra Leone army "take the battle forward" against rebels into the interior.

BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus says the view in London seems to be that the window of opportunity seized by the rebel leader Foday Sankoh may now be closing.



Our job now in the short term, using the new SLA (Sierra Leone Army), is to take the battle forward and do whatever is necessary, increasingly into the interior

General David Richards
Urgent efforts are under way to bring in additional UN troops, although the beleaguered UN troops on the ground are now said to be operating more effectively and more confidently.

Three additional UN battalions from Jordan, India and Bangladesh are expected to be operational within the next four weeks.

The funerals are taking place in Freetown of 19 people killed on Monday in a shootout outside Mr Sankoh's house.

Thousands of people have turned up at the national stadium to honour the dead, who are being described by the government as national martyrs.

RUF soldiers killed at least seven civilians and another 12 people including army soldiers were killed in the fighting which followed. The rebel leader disappeared after the fighting.

Several of Mr Sankoh's bodyguards were also killed on Monday, but they were not honoured.

Three-hour battle

Meanwhile news has emerged from southern Sierra Leone of a three-hour battle between UN peacekeepers and Revolutionary United Front rebels.

According to civilians who fled the latest fighting on the main road between Freetown and Bo, the RUF attacked on two fronts, but were beaten back by the Guinean UN troops fighting alongside pro-government militias.

Truckloads of pro-government reinforcements were seen heading for the area, near a town called Mile 91.

Click here to see recent fighting spots

Late on Thursday, the UN Security Council met in emergency session to discuss the Sierra Leone situation. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for additional UN troops to be sent and admitted they had been woefully prepared for their mission.

Afterwards, Mr Annan said that resolving the crisis had become a crucial test for the international community.

British defence chief Sir Charles Guthrie is visiting Sierra Leone to see for himself the situation facing the 1,000 British troops based there.

The UK Government maintains that while the UN peacekeepers await reinforcements, the troops will remain offering technical and logistical support but will not take on a combat role.


Balance of forces
Rebels: Up to 20,000, including 10,000 combat troops
Army: At least 3,000 poorly-armed troops
Pro-government Kamajors: 15,000 militiamen
UN: 8,900 peacekeepers, rising to 11,100
UK: 1,000 paras in Freetown, naval flotilla
It has been revealed that two companies of Kenyan UN peacekeepers, about 200 soldiers, escaped from Makeni where they were surrounded by rebel troops.

A British forces spokesman said they had broken free on Wednesday and were now back in Freetown. But it is not yet clear whether these troops were among the 500 peacekeepers captured by the rebels.

The UN Mission in Sierra Leone (Unamsil) currently comprises 8,900 troops.

However, Mr Annan said when all the promised extra troops had arrived, they would probably exceed the 11,100 authorised by the Security Council.

Escape

It emerged early on Friday that four unarmed UN observers had managed to escape from the rebels.


Annan
Mr Annan said extra equipment was on its way
The four - three Britons and a New Zealander - were abducted on Tuesday of last week by the RUF.

British military spokesman Lieutenant Tony Cramp said the men had managed to slip away from their captors a few days later and had been picked up by a British helicopter on Tuesday.

The men made their escape by scaling a wall.

US envoy

In Washington, President Bill Clinton said the US would do whatever it could to aid the UN's mission in Sierra Leone.


British troops
The role of the British troops in Sierra Leone has been extended
However, the US has not promised to deploy any of its own troops.

President Clinton is sending his special envoy, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, to West Africa to work towards a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Mr Jackson is expected to meet leaders in the region who are already trying to use their influence to secure the release of the abducted UN personnel.


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See also:

11 May 00 | Africa
UN bolsters Freetown defences
10 May 00 | Africa
Nigeria sets intervention terms
12 May 00 | Africa
Africa Media Watch
12 May 00 | UK
It's a jungle out there
09 May 00 | Africa
Can the UN force restore peace?
10 May 00 | Africa
Brutal child army grows up
10 May 00 | Africa
Where is Foday Sankoh?
09 May 00 | Africa
BBC's key role in Sierra Leone
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