A conflict rooted in rebels and diamonds

Even before reaching its first anniversary, a peace accord that gave Sierra Leoneans an uneasy respite from eight years of civil war was shot to pieces. Fighting escalated yesterday as rebels retook the strategic town of Masiaka on the main highway to the capital, Freetown. And since May 1, they have taken some 500 United Nations peacekeepers hostage, confiscating their guns, ammunition, armored vehicles, and uniforms.

Despite the images of thousands of civilians fleeing their homes, and rebels hacking off limbs, the international community has not offered military resources like the ones seen in Kosovo or East Timor this past year. Western nations fear getting entangled in yet another African war.

But human rights activists contend that the world can make a difference in this tiny West African nation. "Sierra Leone is an entirely feasible project. It is a small country of just 4 million people," says Olara Otunnu, the UN under-secretary general for children and armed conflict. "It is not a complex conflict rooted in ethnic divisions as in the Balkans."

It is rooted in diamonds.

The stakes

Sierra Leone remains one of the poorest countries, despite its diamond wealth. Or rather because of it. "The diamond mines are central to the conflict in two ways. One, they provide the spoils. Two, [they are] providing the RUF [Revolutionary United Front rebels] with the money to continue waging war," says Marina Ottaway, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The RUF has long controlled the diamond mines and, under the Lom peace accord, its leader Foday Sankoh was put in charge of the country's mining interests. That, analysts say, is a prime reason why the accord was destined to fail from the moment it was signed.

The rebels have been illegally smuggling diamonds "mainly through Liberia and Burkina Faso," says George Ayittey, visiting professor at American University. Since borders are so porous in Africa, the gems are virtually untraceable. And Mr. Sankoh is widely believed to use the revenue to buy military equipment, radio and television gear, and political campaign materials.

A shaky place

The Lom Accord signed last July took Sankoh off death row and gave him a top government post. His soldiers were also given amnesty, which human rights advocates immediately denounced. To the government and the international mediators, it was a high but necessary price for peace. The rebels were required to turn in their weapons and be reintegrated into society. Analysts charge that Sankoh and his men never intended to disarm themselves and used the accord to buy time to reorganize.

Who's who

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was democratically elected in 1996 in the midst of a civil war that began in 1991. He was overthrown the following year by Johnny Paul Koroma, who now sides with him. Mr. Kabbah returned to the presidency from exile in Guinea in 1998 after a Nigerian-led force wrestled power from Mr. Koroma. In 1999, Kabbah, lacking a strong military force and under pressure from the UN, Washington, and London, reluctantly agreed to form a coalition government with rebels in a bid to end the civil war. His ill-equipped and poorly trained Army includes some 4,000 troops but has support from some 15,000 Kamajors, traditional hunters armed by the government.

Sankoh founded the RUF, which has gained a reputation for brutality by targeting civilians and forcing drug-induced children to fight his war. Sankoh, a former corporal in the Sierra Leonean Army who had trained in Libya, emerged from obscurity in 1991 as the instigator of the civil war. In a reversal of fortunes, he went from death row in 1997 to the vice presidency in 1999, when a peace accord granted him amnesty. Last Monday, he disappeared from his residence after soldiers loyal to him opened fire on demonstrators outside his home.

Koroma, who overthrew Kabbah in 1997 and then invited RUF leader Sankoh to join his military junta, now leads the charge against the RUF. For that he has received much good press, to the consternation of human rights activists who question his motives. "The press has a very short memory because Koroma is the one who overthrew Kabbah in 1997 in a military coup," says Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "He is now a redeemer, fighting alongside the government forces. What better way to rehabilitate your image than to lead the fight against Sankoh?"

International players

The UN helped broker the Lom Accord in 1999 and originally mandated 6,000 peacekeepers to watch over Sierra Leone. That limit was increased to 11,100 last February, after Nigerian troops started withdrawing from the country. The force is a hodgepodge of African, Asian, and Mideast troops with varying skills and equipment. The peacekeepers have been criticized for giving up themselves and their equipment too easily.

The US and Britain brokered the Lom accord and pushed for the Security Council resolution that set up the UN peacekeeping mission. But neither country has its nationals in the UN force. Both have resisted Mr. Annan's calls for the creation of a rapid-reaction force. However, Britain has sent almost 1,000 soldiers to secure Freetown's Lungi airport and to evacuate foreigners.

Nigeria provided the bulk of the West African force known as ECOMOG, up until the peace accord. Washington has been lobbying for Ecomog's return to Sierra Leone. West African leaders are scheduled to consider this on Wednesday.

Facts and figures

Land area: 27,925 square miles

Population: 4 million

Capital: Freetown

Climate: Tropical with temperatures averaging 80F.

Literacy rate: 15 percent

Main religions: Muslim, Christian, and traditional

Official language: English

Balance of forces

Government Army: About 4,000 poorly armed troops

Rebels: Up to 20,000, including 10,000 combat troops

Pro-government Kamajors: 15,000 militiamen

UN: 9,000 peacekeepers, rising to 11,100

Britain: 1,000 paramilitary forces in Freetown, and a naval flotilla

Sources: Political Handbook of the World; BBC

Chronology

18th century: Sierra Leone becomes a settlement for freed slaves.

April 27, 1961: Gains independence from Great Britain.

April 3, 1991: Foday Sankoh emerges as the founder of the RUF and instigator of the civil war.

March 29, 1996: Ahmed Tejan Kabbah inaugurated after March 15 run-off elections.

May 25, 1997: Johnny Paul Koroma seizes power.

June 1: Koroma invites Sankoh to join junta as vice president in absentia.

June 2: Nigerian Navy bombards Freetown.

February 1998: Nigerian-led West African Ecomog force wrestles control from Koroma

March 10: Kabbah returns from Guinea and resumes presidency.

October: Sankoh convicted of treason and murder; sentenced to death.

Jan. 6, 1999: RUF begins worst offensive on Freetown, leaves 6,000 dead by end of month.

Jan. 27: Ecomog pushes rebels out of Freetown.

April: Sankoh released from prison.

May 25: Talks begin between government and RUF.

July 7: Lom peace accord signed.

Oct. 22: UN approves mission.

Feb. 7, 2000: UN raises mandated number of peacekeepers to 11,100.

May 1: Five hundred UN troops taken hostage.

May 7: Sankoh disappears.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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