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 You are in: Special Report: 1999: 01/99: Sierra Leone  
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Sierra Leone Thursday, 8 July, 1999, 08:51 GMT 09:51 UK
Sierra Leone's rebel teenage army
Rebels
The young rebels care little for their personal safety
By former BBC West Africa Correspondent Elizabeth Blunt

Nigeria counts itself a major military power on the African continent, and has deployed thousands of troops in Sierra Leone.

The nominally international peacekeeping force (known as Ecomog) which has been maintaining Sierra Leone's civilian government in power is in fact overwhelmingly Nigerian, with token contributions from other West African countries.

Sierra Leone
Yet this force of trained and uniformed soldiers, well armed, and with air and artillery support, has been made to look foolish by motley groups of rebels, many of them teenagers or younger, who were able to infiltrate right into the centre of the city early this year, chase out the government, and force President Kabbah to sue for peace.

The panic in Freetown when they appeared clearly showed the fear these youngsters, with matted locks and dressed in tatters, inspire in the adult civilian population.

But although they look like a rabble, the young fighters can be very disciplined and are fiercely loyal to their commanders.

They travel light, care little for their personal safety, and are at home in the thick forest that comes to the very edge of the city.

Feared by adults

Since the coup d' etat in 1997 they have allied themselves with disgruntled members of the regular army, but their rebellion dates back to the early 90s, when the Revolutionary United Front began its attacks near the Liberia border.

A young fighter
A young fighter goes into action in Freetown - against the rebels
At first it seemed a puppet movement, an offshoot of Liberian fighting factions, but it soon took on a life of its own, and attracted disaffected young men from the impoverished countryside

To have a gun gave them power and the chance to avenge themselves on a society that offered them very little.

And guns were plentiful - some came over the border from Liberia, and there was money to be made in the rich diamnond fields of the north-east, at least some of which has been spent on arms.

The Nigerians are also well armed, but they suffer the usual disadvantage of any regular army trying to take on irregular fighters in a bush war.

The soldiers were not fighting in their own country, and after years of poor pay, and little home leave, may not have seen the point of getting themselves killed in someone else's war.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Audio
The BBC's Mark Doyle: "There is confusion in the city"
Video
BBC Correspondent Paul Welsh: The population has been told to remain calm
Video
The BBC's Paul Welsh: "The situation (for the government) has certainly much changed from the jubilant scenes of last year"
Audio
The BBC:s Mark Doyle reports from the Nigerian-held international airport
Links to more Sierra Leone stories are at the foot of the page.


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