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Sierra Leone Tuesday, 10 August, 1999, 11:20 GMT 12:20 UK
Q&A: Sierra Leone's hostages
Sierra Leone has been moving slowly towards peace after its long, bitter and brutal civil war.

But despite hopes that the peace accord signed in July would lead to some form of normality, tensions remain high amid fears that the hostage crisis will prevent the planned disarming of rebels and their inclusion in a new government.

Click here to see a Sierra Leone factfile

Who was holding the hostages?

The UN-led group of military observers were taken hostage by members of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC).

They operate independently of the other rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The UN-negotiatiors met the AFRC to try and resolve the most appalling aspect of the civil war, the abduction of children.

Confusingly, one rebel spokesman said that the RUF leader Foday Sankoh had ordered the hostages released.

So what is the difference between the two groups?

The RUF began fighting in 1991 with no clear political ideology after a former army colonel Foday Sankoh formed an alliance with forces in neighbouring Liberia.

It fought for years against successive Sierra Leonean armies and governments but joined ranks with the AFRC in 1997 to overthrow the democratically-elected President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

The AFRC emerged from a middle and lower-ranks army mutiny amid protests over poor wages and the stalemate in the war.

The RUF is now recognised as a legal political party and its members will be allowed to contest elections and hold public offices.

BBC correspondents in the region say that the AFRC rebels fled in to the bush after the Nigerian-led intervention force, Ecomog, overthrew the military regime.

Why are they holding children hostage?

The plight of Sierra Leone's children is one of the most appalling legacies of the war.

Both the AFRC and the RUF abducted children during the war - many of them recruited to fight. The government estimates that there are around 5,000 children being held against their will.

Click here to go to the BBC World Service's special report, Children of Conflict.

As rebels moved from village to village, boys were abducted and sent to camps where they were trained how to fight.

The pro-government Kamajors, which conducted much of the frontline fighting for the West African intervention force, Ecomog, also recruited boys as soldiers.

While the boys were sent to fight, hundreds of young girls were raped and kept as sex prisoners.

During village attacks, rebels used terror to crush resistance. One tactic involved rebels chopping off limbs of civilians as a warning to others not to support the government or its forces.

Many children were forced to join the fighting in the areas from which they had been abducted. These child soldiers have since found themselves ostracised by their own communities.

What are the rebels demanding?

The AFRC rebels have demanded the release of their leader, John Paul Koroma, who they say is being held captive in the capital, Freetown. They are also demanding a larger role in the peace process.

Food remains scarce among rebels in the interior and the kidnappers are said to be demanding supplies including medicine.

So what happened to the peace accord?

Under the terms of the Lome peace accord, the rebels are due to start handing in weapons during August.

Last month, a RUF spokesman Omrie Golley told the BBC that rebels wanted to seek forgiveness for atrocities and help rebuild the country.

The inclusion of rebel leaders in a new administration is fraught with difficulties as many ordinary Sierra Leoneans are deeply unhappy with the proposals following the years of brutal attacks.

However, rebels are remaining in strongholds and the peace appears, at best, fragile.

What are the roots of the war?

The conflict began in complex circumstances that involved both internal and external pressures.

Rebels emerged amid bitterness over years of misrule by what they saw as a corrupt elite which took over following the end of British rule in 1961.

Poor rural people increasingly resented the richer ruling class of Freetown while battles to control the wealth of the diamond mines further fanned the flames of conflict.

Foday Sankoh, trained by the British army, formed an alliance with Liberian rebel militia leader Charles Taylor - now president - and launched the war.

As the war dragged on, successive attempts to restore peace failed.

Sierra Leone governments brought in mercenaries, most notably UK military consultants Sandline International, an event which sparked a full-scale inquiry into the role of the British Foreign Office in the affair.

South African mercenaries, attracted by the potential wealth held in the diamond mines, joined the government side while it is believed that Ukrainians fought with the rebels.

Nigeria led an intervention force into Freetown earlier this year and finally brought the fighting to an end.

The operation was hailed as a major success for Africa solving its own problems.

What were the effects of the war?

The civil war saw nearly half the country's 4.5 million population displaced and the United Nations recently placed Sierra Leone at the bottom of its list ranking how countries are meeting the needs of their people.

A further 500,000 people are believed displaced in neighbouring countries.

At least 50,000 people died in the fighting while there are an estimated 100,000 mutilation victims.

The economy is in ruins while the national infrastructure needed to run the country has effectively collapsed.

The World Food Programme has been operating throughout Sierra Leone though it is scaling down its work following the abductions.

here to return.
The BBC's Mark Doyle in Freetown: "The plight of the children is far worse than that of the foreign hostages"
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