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The BBC's Mike Donkin
"The releases have gathered pace"
 real 28k

Saturday, 27 May, 2000, 01:28 GMT 02:28 UK
Rebels 'free 180 hostages'
Nearly 500 UN personnel were captured
The Liberian Government says it has secured the release of 180 UN peacekeepers being held by rebels in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Forty-six of the former hostages have been flown to the Liberian capital, Monrovia, where a number were transferred to hospital. The remainder are in the border town of Foya waiting to be airlifted out.

About 70 UN peacekeepers are still being held hostage in Sierra Leone by the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) but a Liberian Government minister said mediators were continuing talks with individual rebel commanders and he hoped all UN personnel would soon be freed.

Charles Taylor: The Liberian president has played a pivotal role
The RUF seized 500 UN hostages more than three weeks ago.

News of the mass release came shortly after Sierra Leonean President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah announced that it was to put the RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, on trial.

He told the BBC in an interview that the evidence against him was being put together now and, if found to have violated the law, Mr Sankoh would no longer be considered part of the peace deal he signed last year.

"We're in the process of putting together the evidence," he said.

President Kabbah
President Kabbah wants British troops to stay

Finance Minister James Jonah said the government would prefer Mr Sankoh to be tried by an international tribunal because his safety could not be guaranteed in a local court.

Mr Kabbah warned that United Nations peacekeeping troops had not yet all been deployed, and a British troop withdrawal next month would create a vacuum.

"We're trying to see how best to avoid a catastrophe," Mr Kabbah said.

The UK Government this week began replacing troops of the Parachute Regiment in Sierra Leone with Royal Marines.

A final withdrawal of British troops is currently planned to take place by mid-June.

Sankoh faces trial

Mr Kabbah said he would be speaking to the UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to persuade him not to withdraw British troops from Sierra Leone.

Mr Kabbah said the UK had been a good friend so far, and the Sierra Leonean people looked up to the UK.

Foday Sankoh
Detained rebel leader Foday Sankoh will face trial
The UN has said it is in contact with rebel commanders in an effort to find an alternative negotiating partner to Mr Sankoh, who the UN says is no longer a "credible" person.

Child soldiers

Mr Kabbah's appeal comes as concern grows in the UK that arms supplied by the Blair Government have been used by child soldiers in the Sierra Leonean army.

But the president has told the UK High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Alan Jones, that all soldiers aged under 18 will now be demobilised from pro-government forces.

The Sierra Leonean Government's move followed an outcry over a photograph of a 14-year-old boy carrying what appeared to be a British rifle, which was published in the UK press.

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See also:

25 May 00 | Africa
Fatal ambush in Sierra Leone
20 May 00 | Africa
UN to boost Sierra Leone force
17 May 00 | Africa
Fighting against child soldiers
26 May 00 | Africa
Still open for diamond business
27 May 00 | UK Politics
UK troops 'out by June'
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