To critics, it was like making a pact with the devil.
In the summer of 1999, just weeks after the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) had gone on a killing spree in the Sierra Leone capital, US and British officials began a strong push for a peace agreement between the rebels and the faltering government.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson was enlisted as an envoy and President Clinton reportedly worked the phones. Washington even paid for a local secretary to type up an agreement as the two sides met under US supervision in Lome, Togo, a State Department official says.
To complete a deal, however, Washington had to make a concession. If the rebels gave up their arms, the US would support a plan granting them amnesty and a share in the government. It was similar to what the international community had done in Mozambique with the rebel group Renamo.
The pact was tough for Washington to swallow. The RUF had killed or maimed thousands of civilians in eight years of brutal conflict. RUF leader Foday Sankoh, who had been on death row, would be given a position in the government.
Analysts say that deal - and its subsequent collapse - lie behind renewed conflict in Sierra Leone, where the RUF has reneged on disarmament and is assaulting United Nations peacekeeping troops.
"Clearly the US and Britain played a very important role in making that happen," says Janet Fleischman of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "They were not overly concerned about what the amnesty provision would mean. That was the seed of the problem."
According to Ms. Fleischman, the rebels were empowered by gaining immunity within the country. They were also allowed to keep control of Sierra Leone's diamond mines, giving them enough wealth to support a small army. In short, they had no reason to stop fighting.
While the US has long struggled over how to address problems in Africa, Sierra Leone is among the starkest examples - poor, violence-wracked, and for years ignored by the international community.
Sending US troops to the region was never seriously considered, because it probably would have cost too many US lives. Defense officials say the terrain is difficult for troop support and aerial targeting.
When a UN peacekeeping force was sent, it had about 10,000 members, mostly from African countries. Twice that number would have been appropriate - or at least on par with the number of soldiers sent to Kosovo - says Marina Ottaway, an Africa expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Now, US officials are distancing themselves from the Lome deal, and suggesting that Mr. Sankoh and other rebels should be considered for international prosecution - if they were to leave their sanctuary in Sierra Leone, or if they committed war crimes after they were given amnesty.
"Lome was an agreement of the parties," a State Department official says. "We just helped keep the talks going."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society