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Thursday, August 12, 1999

Last group of Sierra Leone hostages freed

AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE  
FREETOWN, AUG 11: A convoy of trucks brought some 200 women and children along with the last of a group of hostages freed by Sierra Leone renegade soldiers into Freetown late Tuesday.

Residents of the capital watched the trucks drive into the city but relief was tempered by caution, with an aid worker saying, ``We don't want people to fuss over them until they settle down.'' The civilians had been held since January, when rebels invaded Freetown and abducted hundreds, using the women as sex slaves and forcing the children to become soldiers.

Many were traumatised from their ordeal, aid workers said, adding that they looked thin and ill-nourished but were expected to recover.

The children were taken to a reception centre to be welcomed by experts from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and other agencies.

Also freed were 20 Nigerian soldiers of the West African peacekeeping force ECOMOG and a Kazakh member of the UN observer mission in Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL).

They were among some 40 militaryobservers, aid workers and journalists held when they went to the Occra Hills region 40 miles (60 kilometres) East of Freetown to take charge of the civilians last Monday. The rest had already been released in batches during the ensuing week.

Sierra Leone Information Minister Julius Spencer told a press conference in Freetown that ``the hostage drama is over''. ``No one was hurt and everybody came out alive,'' he stressed, adding that the hostage-taking was ``an isolated and minor incident.''

Their captors were outlaw soldiers still loyal to Lieutenant Colonel Johnny-Paul Koroma, leader of a military junta which seized power in May 1997 and was ousted by ECOMOG in February 1998.

They had claimed Koroma was being held by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF),former rebel allies who signed a peace deal with the Freetown government in July.

But Koroma, who has been in Monrovia since Saturday, called on the former soldiers to free their hostages, assuring them that he was a ``free man.''

Thehostage-takers also claimed that the peace accord signed in July in Togo by Sierra Leone President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and RUF leader Foday Sankoh did not take account of their interests.

But the sponsors of the accord -- the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United Nations -- dismissed the objection.

The implementation of the peace plan has been slow to materialize in the month since the accord was signed. A national unity government has yet to be formed, and disarmament, which is to be complete within 60 days of the July 7 signing, has not yet begun.

But Spencer insisted Tuesday that the peace process was ``not at all threatened'',and thanked Liberian President Charles Taylor, the UN, the British government, Koroma and ECOMOG for their role in resolving the crisis.

Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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