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Tuesday, January 12, 1999 Published at 16:44 GMT

A country torn by conflict

A young fighter from the pro-government Kamajor militia

By Africa Reporter Caroline Hawley

Eight years of protracted war have forced close to half a million of Sierra Leone's people to flee the country - turning them into Africa's largest refugee population.

Countless Sierra Leoneans have lost their lives, and the country's economy has been shattered.

Former West Africa Correspondent Elizabeth Blunt looks back at the last two years of war
The war, which broke out in 1991, is a complex and brutal conflict that has its roots in years of misrule, and the civil war in neighbouring Liberia. It is fuelled by diamond wealth and a long-standing resentment among the people of the poor rural interior against the richer ruling class in the coastal capital, Freetown.

It is being fought, in large part, by children and teenagers.

Sierra Leone
Both the rebels and the pro-government self-defence militias, known as the Kamajors, have recruited child soldiers.

The RUF rebel movement which is waging the war against President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force which backs him has no clear political ideology. But rural poverty and a resentment of a distant government has been a driving force.

'Operation no living thing'

Its guerrilla war has been accompanied by horrific attacks on civilians - many of whom have had their limbs cut off as part of a terror campaign.

[ image: Thousands have been mutilated in machete attacks]
Thousands have been mutilated in machete attacks
The names of the rebel offensives speak for themselves: Operation Burn House, was a series of arson attacks. Operation Pay Yourself, a programme of looting, and - most sinister of all - Operation No Living Thing.

Sierra Leone, a former British colony, enjoyed 30 years of relative stability after it won independence in 1961.

But anger was building over corruption among the ruling elite, and questions were being asked about how the country's diamond wealth was being spent.

President Kabbah was elected in 1996 - in the fairest elections seen in Sierra Leone for years. But his time in office was to prove short-lived.

In May 1997, he was overthrown by a combined force of junior soldiers and fighters of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

The RUF was set up in 1991, by a former army corporal, Foday Sankoh, who formed an alliance with a Liberian militia, the National Patriotic Front for Liberia, led by Charles Taylor, who last year became President of Liberia.

For years, the RUF fought against successive Sierra Leonean armies. But in 1997, it joined ranks with the military junta, which called itself the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council or AFRC.

Short-lived success story

The junta was ousted by the West African Intervention Force, Ecomog, last February and President Kabbah returned triumphantly from exile in Guinea.

Richard Dowden of the Economist talks to the Newshour programme about the reasons for the war
The operation was hailed as a major success for Ecomog - and for the philosophy of finding African solutions to African problems.

Some AFRC soldiers surrendered, but thousands of others retreated, along with the RUF, into the bush. The rebels were regrouping with assistance from Liberia, and according to the rebels, Burkina Faso.

Rebel attacks intensified in October, after 24 soldiers of the former junta were executed and the RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, was sentenced to death for treason.

In December, the rebels announced they would advance on Freetown to force the government to release Mr Sankoh. In the first week of January, they entered the capital, and another battle for the city began.

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