The Sierra Leone Web


January 2001

31 January: Former Sierra Leonean soccer star Ishmail Dyfan died early Wednesday morning in Boston hospital, where he had been undergoing treatment for colon cancer. He was 44. Dyfan played for Freetown's East End Lions from 1973-1980, before embarking on an international career with Ivory Coast's African Sports d'Abidjan and Egypt's Arab Contractors. He returned to Sierra Leone in 1987 to play for Sierra Fisheries, then from 1988-1990 was player-coach for St. Edward's. In 1990, he took over the reins of Mount Aureol. Following the 1997 AFRC military coup, Dyfan coached the Wallidan Football Club in the Gambia, but returned home in 1998 to lead Sierra Leone's national team, the Leone Stars. The funeral is set for this weekend.

President Kabbah has formally asked Parliament to delay presidential and parliamentary elections due for February and March, Justice Minister and Attorney-General Solomon Berewa said on Wednesday. "President Kabbah has sent a letter to Parliament for a six-month extension," Berewa (pictured right) told reporters in Freetown. He said the president's decision was based on a letter written last week chairman of the National Electoral Commission, Walter Nicol, informing him that the current election timetable was "unrealistic."  "The Electoral Commission stated many reasons why it is not practicable now to hold an election," Berea said. "Some of these reasons are connected with the war situation that is now prevailing in Sierra Leone. And of course the funding for the election, the logistics." The NEC also noted that the disarmament process had not been completed. The lack of funds has also meant that voter registration lists, last drawn up for the 1996 elections, have not been updated, and constituency boundaries have yet to be delineated. Meanwhile, Kabbah met Wednesday with parliamentary leaders to explain his decision, VOA correspondent Kelvin Lewis reported. Parliament is expected to debate the resolution next week.

A former Appeal Court judge, Justice Edmond Cowan, was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives on Tuesday, defeating Deputy Speaker Abdul O. Bangura for the post by 41 votes to 26. Justice Cowan succeeds the late Justice Sheku M. F. Kutubu, who passed away earlier this month. 

Sierra Leone and Guinea will set up a military contact group to prevent civilians from being killed when Guinean helicopter gunships attack suspected RUF bases inside Sierra Leone, presidential spokesman Septimus Kaikai said on Wednesday. "The group will monitor the situation around border villages in the north to ensure that lives and properties of innocent citizens are not endangered," Kaikai told reporters in Freetown. Recent cross-border reprisal raids by the Guinean military in northern Sierra Leone have left a number of civilians dead or wounded, and forced many others to flee their homes. "Revolutionary United Front rebels have been operating from Sierra Leone into Guinea and this has prompted the reaction of the Guineans," Kaikai said, adding "We ask for the understanding of the public and support in dealing with these unfortunate happenings, bearing in mind the Guinean government is firmly behind the people of Sierra Leone in the pursuit of peace." Meanwhile, Reuters quoted a source described as a senior advisor to Britain's defence ministry, who alleged that RUF attacks into Guinea were being backed by the Liberian government. "I don't think there is any doubt that there has been a concerted move. The RUF backed by (Liberian President) Charles Taylor could push forward small but effective units into Guinea," said the source, who was accompanying British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon on a two-day visit to Sierra Leone.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is hoping by the end of the week to begin relocating tens of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees placed at risk by new fighting along Guinea's southern border to a new refugee camp at Kuntaya, 82 kilometres north of Kissidougou, the UNHCR's country representative in Guinea said on Wednesday. "We hope that once we start moving, starting with the camp of Nyaedou, space will be created for refugees to leave the most dangerous places to this new camp, and we hope to do that for other camps in the region." Chris Ache told the BBC. Ache said the security situation around the Nyaedou camp, only 17 km. north of the embattled town of Gueckedou, had deteriorated to the point where some UNHCR implementation partners had refused to go there to distribute food. "(Agencies) had to physically look for volunteers and physically do this food distribution in that camp," he said. "Partners were afraid because of the persistent...attacks in these areas." Fighting in the area is still preventing aid agencies from reaching some 250,000 refugees and displaced persons stranded in the elongate of Gueckedou, more commonly known as the "parrot's beak," Ache added. Meanwhile, the UNHCR is expressing concern over what Ache called a "new phenomenon" in the Guinean capital: Many of the refugees who have left the camps for Conakry are refusing to be repatriated to Sierra Leone. "Some have gone to Sierra Leone and have come back to the country," Ache said. "And it’s creating new problems for us in Conakry, because they say that they prefer to remain in Guinea even though they left their camps. They left because of the insecurity in those camps, and we just hope that if we have a new site that they’re able to go there to the new site away from the border areas where the fighting is taking place."

ECOWAS Executive Secretary Lansana Kouyate (pictured left) arrived in Conakry on Wednesday for talks with Guinean President Conte on how to implement an ECOWAS decision to deploy 1,796 West African peacekeepers along the country's volatile southern borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia. Meanwhile, the Pan African News Agency (PANA) quoted ECOWAS sources as saying the deployment of an advance team might have fallen behind schedule due to a delay in appointing a force commander. The advance team was to have been in place by January 27. The commander is expected to come from Nigeria, which will be the largest troop contributor. Smaller contingents will be provided by Mali, Niger and Senegal. Nigerian Defence Spokesman Brigadier-General Godwin Ugbo told PANA a force commander had been chosen and was awaiting appointment by the ECOWAS heads of state and government. "Hopefully, he will be confirmed before Friday," Ugbo said.

British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon visited the Benguema Military Training Centre Wednesday, where British troops are training soldiers for the restructured Sierra Leone Army, then flew by U.N. helicopter to Masiaka where he met with Sierra Leonean troops in the field. Hoon will return to Britain on Thursday.

30 January: Presidential and parliamentary elections due to be held in February and March respectively will be postponed due to insecurity in the country, Justice Minister and Attorney-General Solomon Berewa (pictured right) told Reuters on Tuesday. "The Electoral Commission has told the president that they are not able to conduct the elections now because some parts of the country are not accessible due to the war," Berewa told the Reuters news agency. He added that the National Electoral Commission (NEC) also lacked the estimated $23 million it would take to fund the poll. The government's announcement was not unexpected: In October, President Kabbah said he would seek to delay the elections under Article 49(2) of the constitution, which provides that if Sierra Leone is in a state of war involving its physical territory, and the president considers it is not practicable to hold elections, Parliament may extend the president's term for up to six months at a time. A United Nations Security Council mission which visited Sierra Leone last year reported broad agreement among civil society groups, U.N. agencies and regional leaders that Sierra Leone's elections could not be held on schedule. There is less agreement, however, on what form that delay should take, with some civil society groups and opposition politicians backing calls for an interim government of national unity. On Sunday, exiled UNPP leader Dr. John Karefa-Smart suggested the convening of a national conference which would elect an interim executive council to govern the country, and appoint a group of international experts to draw up a new constitution. And on Monday, NUP leader John Benjamin told the BBC that an interim caretaker government was "the way forward" for Sierra Leone.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has appointed Alan Doss, a British national, as Deputy Special Representative of UNAMSIL, a U.N. spokesman said in New York. Doss, an expert in U.N. development activities, will work as deputy to Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Sierra Leone. Another Deputy Special Representative, Behrooz Sadry of Iran, will continue to assist in the overall political leadership, operations and management of UNAMSIL, the spokesman said. Doss is currently Director of the U.N. Development Group Office, which brings together the U.N.'s development agencies and is headed by an Executive Committee comprising the heads of the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF), the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Food Programme (WFP). Prior to this, Doss was Director of UNDP's European Office in Geneva, during which time he served as UNDP's representative to the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon left London for Freetown on Tuesday, where he will meet with British troops engaged in training Sierra Leonean soldiers and see for himself conditions in the country, the Ministry of Defence said. Hoon will meet with Brigadier Jonathan Riley, the commander of British forces in the country, and will reaffirm Britain's support for the Sierra Leone government in a meeting with President Kabbah. The defence secretary will also inspect newly-trained army units trained by British forces, and will visit a school for amputee victims. He is due to return to Britain on Thursday. 

Liberian President Charles Taylor said Monday his government would seek to improve relations with the United States, strained since allegations surfaced last year that the Liberian government was involved in the illegal arms-for-diamonds trade in violation of U.N. sanctions, and was actively supporting Sierra Leone's RUF rebels. "We will work to expand the level of contact and collaboration between Liberian and U.S. government officials," Taylor said in his annual address to the Liberian legislature. Last week Taylor's press secretary, Reginald Goodridge, told the BBC his country was dropping a reciprocal travel ban on U.S. officials as an overture to the new U.S. administration. Goodridge acknowledged that Liberia "had its share of problems with the former Clinton administration," but suggested his government was seeing "positive signals" that the change of government in Washington might provide an opportunity for the two countries to improve relations. Earlier this month, however, the U.S. introduced a motion in the United Nations Security Council which would impose sanctions on Taylor's government for its alleged support for the RUF and for rebel groups in Guinea —  charges Liberia continues to deny. The Sierra Leone government announced last week its support for the sanctions resolution, and has indicated it would like to see the international pressure on Liberia ratcheted up. A diplomatic source told the Sierra Leone Web that Sierra Leone was pursuing a two-pronged approach: first, a request for the extradition from Monrovia of former RUF field commander Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie "based on (Liberian Foreign Minister Monie) Captan's public statement to the effect that we had not requested the repatriation or deportation of (Bockarie) and others," and second, "to make sure that ECOWAS does not save Taylor by suggesting regional dialogue instead of sanctions." Intensive contacts are underway on both strategies both at the United Nations and in the sub-region, the source said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has "dramatically scaled down relief efforts in Guinea" and withdrawn most of its staff from the town of Kissidougou after new reports of fighting late Sunday and Monday near the town of Gueckedou, a spokesman for the agency said in Geneva. The fighting has frustrated hopes for quick access to an estimated 180,000 Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees and 70,000 displaced Guineans stranded in the volatile "parrot's beak" region, along the country's border with Sierra Leone. The spokesman expressed concern over reports from former refugees of beatings and torture by the Guinean army in the Gueckedou area. "There are also allegations of widespread abuses by Sierra Leonean rebels against desperate refugees who have resorted to walking back home through rebel-infested border areas," he said. "Refugees who have crossed areas of Sierra Leone controlled by the RUF rebels speak of rape, abduction and murder." The volatile situation, he said, had turned the relief effort into "an extremely risky ad hoc venture." Meanwhile, the UNHCR is continuing work on two new camp sites  —  at Borea, 62 kilometres north of Kissidougou, and at Kuntaya, 82 kms north of Kissidougou —  where the agency hopes to relocate refugees from the Gueckedou and "parrot's beak" regions. By the end of the week, the UNHCR will begin relocation convoys from the endangered Nyaedou camp, which is only 17 kilometres north of Kissidougou. Nyaedou currently houses some 30,000 refugees. On Monday the UNHCR airlifted 8,100 jerrycans, 7,000 blankets and 500 rolls of plastic tarpaulins to Conakry from Copenhagen, Denmark. The supplies are destined for the new camps. Meanwhile, tensions between Liberia and Guinea, who accuse one another of supporting rebel insurgencies in their respective territories, show little sign of abating. Liberian Defence Minister Daniel Chea, who last week accused the Guinea army of cross-border shelling near the Lofa County town of Foya, alleged Tuesday that Guinean helicopter gunships had bombed a Liberian customs post at Soloba and a market in Foya, killing ten persons. "That has been an area of concentration of the attack in recent weeks," Chea told the BBC. "We don’t know why, but they have to stop it because Liberia is doing everything to ensure that peace comes to the region. We have no other interest in the region other than to see peace. But this wave of constant unprovoked attacks against our territory will not be condoned. It’s a matter of time before we get fed up." Chea said Liberia was pursuing the matter through diplomatic channels, but that Liberian troops along the border area had been instructed "to stand by and if possible bring down the first helicopter that flies through our airspace."

29 January: The joint UNAMSIL - RUF Contact Group is expected to meet at Makeni on Monday to discuss the situation around Mange, and the possible deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in the area, according to a UNAMSIL statement. On Saturday two RUF officials, Colonel Alfred Morlu Jimmy, a member of the RUF Contact Group, and Major Mohamed Gibril Sesay, commander of the Fourth RUF Brigade at Magburaka, handed over a letter to the commander of the Bangladeshi battalion, BANBATT-2, addressed to the chairman of the UNAMSIL Contact Group and requesting the meeting. Meanwhile, UNAMSIL's Russian Aviation Unit and Force Military Information Staff conducted an aerial reconnaissance mission of the Daru - Segbwema - Pendembu Road as well as the Manowa Ferry site on Saturday. The road was found to be "in reasonably good condition with no major obstacles which could impede vehicular traffic," UNAMSIL said. Two filled-in trenches were observed on the stretch of road between Segbwema and Mobai. No checkpoints were observed along the road. The ferry was found to be operational by means of rope, the statement said, adding that no evidence of RUF personnel or traffic was seen at the ferry site. Also on Saturday, U.N. military observers based in Kenema conducted a patrol to the town of Giehun. No RUF presence was observed in the village. The patrol established that the RUF was present in the town of Lalehun, and that unarmed RUF members frequently visit Giehun, the UNAMSIL statement said, noting that the RUF members were not in conflict with the local CDF forces.

Polio immunisations for 18 West African countries exceeded expectations last year, with 76.9 million children vaccinated in the region between January and November, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said on Friday. In Sierra Leone, 842,817 children were immunised, a number UNICEF said fell 21.9 percent short of its target due to the security situation in the country. 

The interim leader of Sierra Leone's opposition National Unity Party, John Oponjo Benjamin, called Monday for an interim caretaker government to be set up when President Kabbah's term in office expires in February. "An interim government is the way forward for this country," Benjamin told the BBC Network Africa programme. "They can start off with looking at the political parties that are presently in Parliament plus the civil societies that have been involved in the process of establishing democracy in our country. They have a lot to contribute in view of the fact that they are in touch with people on the ground." Benjamin, who last month acknowledged his role in the 1992 NPRC coup which overthrew the government of then-President Joseph Saidu Momoh, served briefly as the NPRC's Chief Secretary of State. Then, in 1993, he was appointed Secretary-General of the NPRC government. Benjamin is currently Executive Director of African Information Technology Holdings, an information technology company which operates in Freetown and the Gambia. He is also an announced candidate for president, and in Monday's interview he criticised the government for having a leadership he said was "far removed from the people," and accused government leaders of having "virtually given their responsibility over to foreign countries." Benjamin suggested he would do things differently. "I have the situation where I don’t surrender my responsibility to foreign countries or foreign organisations who do what I am supposed to do," he said. "If U.N. have to come they will meet a programme there they will fit in. If Britain has to come they will meet a programme they will fit in. They will not tell me what I have to do in my country." Benjamin, who was born 48 years ago in the eastern town of Segbwema, told the BBC his party wanted to "break the people free from the tribal chain that they have been tied down to." Sierra Leone, he argued, should see itself politically in the context of what is happening in the rest of West Africa. "How many of these old parties do you see still in governance? How many of these old people do you see still in governance?," he asked. "This is a generation war we have with these people. And if we don’t free our country from tribal sentiments we go nowhere." Benjamin was elected interim leader of the NUP party following the resignation of Dr. John Karimu in 1997. "I have no doubt that because of the manner in which I have held the party together that I would be elected to be the substantive NUP leader," Benjamin told the Sierra Leone Web on Monday. But as to recent media reports suggesting that his party may, in fact, be coming unraveled, with some high-ranking members reportedly planning to switch allegiances to the ruling SLPP, Benjamin declined public comment on specific individuals, but lashed out against those who might be planning to leave the NUP. "A famous world statesman once said, 'Some people change their party because of their principles; Others change their principles because of their party'," he said. "I would add to this that, 'Some people change their party because they have no principles'." 

The Guinean government has placed five prefectures (provinces) hit by recent insurgent attacks under military administration, the Pan African News Agency (PANA) reported on Monday. According to a decree announced Saturday on state radio and television, President Lansana Conte has appointed gendarmerie officers to administer Gueckedou and Kissidougou, while a naval officer will oversee Macenta. Senior civil servants who previously served as prefects in other areas of the country are being transferred to help administer the prefectures of Kindia and Forecariah. The fighting along Guinea's southern border has put at risk hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees and displaced Guineans caught between warring armed groups.

The European Union said Monday it supports initiatives by the United Nations Security Council to "step up pressures on Liberia's President Taylor who, according to the evidence given by the U.N. survey report on Sierra Leone, continues to play a decisive role in the conflict that rages in that country." The communiqué, which was issued in Brussels, said Ambassador Pierre Schori of Sweden announced the EU's position during Thursday's Council debate on the report by a panel of experts, which examined the link between the illicit diamond trade and arms trafficking in Sierra Leone. Sweden currently holds the chairmanship of the 15-member European body. The EU believes "the links between the conflict, arms and diamond trafficking comprise the mainstay of the tragedy the people of Sierra Leone are suffering from," Schori told the Council, adding: "The Revolutionary United Front continues to bank on the illegal trade of diamonds to finance its violent campaign." He charged that U.N. sanctions on the trade in Sierra Leonean rough diamonds and on arms trafficking were violated by the Liberian government. "President Taylor's destabilising scheme also extends to Guinea with dramatic effects on security and the situation of refugees and displaced persons in that country," Schori said. 

Exchange rates for the leone against the U.S. dollar and pound sterling, posted in Freetown on Monday: [Buying / Selling] Standard Chartered Bank: [$] 1700 / 2100 [£] 2400 / 2800. Commercial Bank: [$] 1500 / 1700. [£] 2220 / 2516. Frandia: [$] 1650 / 2000 [£] 2400 / 2850. Continental: [$] 1700 / 2000 [£] 2400 / 2900.

27 January: The president of Médecins sans Frontières' International Council has called the refugee crisis in Guinea a "worst case scenario," as hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees remain stranded in the country's volatile southern border region. "We do have perhaps a quarter of a million refugees that are trapped," Dr. Morten Rostrup said in a BBC interview. "They don’t have any protection. They don’t have any freedom of movement. They cannot escape. they don’t get any assistance when it comes to food, medicines and other non-food items, and there is an increased tendency of violence in the area." He said the refugees should be moved immediately to safer areas, starting with the 30,000 to 40,000 residents of the Nyaedou camp, which is located only about 15 kilometres north of the embattled town of Gueckedou. Rostrup acknowledged reluctance by the Guinean authorities to move large numbers of refugees further into the country's interior, but warned that the alternative was "an uncontrolled massive movement of people" which would be of no benefit to anyone, including the Guinean government. "So I think it should be possible to try to push the government also to allow for this controlled movement at this point of time," he said. He added that the refugees should be screened before being relocated, but argued that this could be done relatively quickly. "Of course it’s very tricky, and I must say from my perspective as a doctor I can just see people suffering, and I can just imagine what’s going on in the 'parrot’s beak' (on the Sierra Leone border), and we just need to find a solution," he said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in coming under pressure from aid agencies, including the medical charity Medècins sans Frontiéres, to "try and get their act together" and move hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees away from Guinea's troubled southern border area, BBC West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle said on Saturday. "The problem," he said, "is getting permission and so on from the Guinean authorities." Doyle quoted a priest from the area of Guinea's so-called "parrot's beak" region — a strip of land which juts into Sierra Leonean territory where an estimated 250,000 refugees and displaced Guineans are trapped by the fighting — as saying he thought relief agencies, and the U.N. in particular, were being too reticent in taking action. "I know where all the refugees are, I don’t know where the aid agencies are," the priest was quoted as saying. But Doyle noted that the UNHCR, which is the lead agency in the operation to move the refugees, still needed to get the permission of the Guinean government. "They are liable to do what the Guinean authorities tell them to do because it is after all Guinean sovereign territory, and the Guineans are very worried that any large uncontrolled movement of refugees might mask rebel maneuvers of some sort," Doyle said, adding that the vast majority of the refugees had no involvement in the fighting. Doyle said that during his visit to Kissidougou this week he saw "very heavily-armed Guinean convoys" heading south towards Gueckedou, the scene of new fighting at the beginning of the week. "And as well as regular Guinean troops I saw ULIMO people," he said. "These are basically Liberian dissidents. Some of them are of Guinean nationality, but some of them certainly are of Liberian nationality. They certainly speak with Liberian accents. And so the Liberian accusation against Guinea that it is harbouring at least some Liberian dissidents does appear to be true. At the same time, I saw some people who the local people told me were Kamajors. These are the pro-Sierra Leonean government civilian militia, and I’m not quite sure what they’re doing in Guinea, but there certainly are some of them there." Meanwhile, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said Saturday that the agency had been forced to temporarily suspend the distribution of food and other aid to refugees after encountering heavily-armed pro-government militiamen in two of the camps.

26 January: Britain announced Friday that it would extend its programme to train soldiers for the restructured Sierra Leone Army through September of this year. At that point, it is expected that responsibility for long-term training will be taken over by a British-led International Military Advisory and Training Team (IMATT). The announcement, by Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon (pictured right), follows visits to Sierra Leone this month by two high-ranking British military officers. According to a statement issued by the Ministry of Defence, British troops are expected to train some 1,500 additional Sierra Leonean soldiers in a series of six-week programmes conducted at the Benguema Military Training Centre outside of Freetown. In a written reply to the House of Commons, Hoon said that Britain would spend an additional £5 million, and would maintain an operational headquarters in Freetown through the end of the year. To date, over 6,500 Sierra Leonean soldiers have completed the British training course. 

Sierra Leone has formally requested the extradition from Liberia of former RUF battlefield commander Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie, the Associated Press reported. Presidential spokesman Septimus Kaikai (pictured left) said Bockarie and his followers were wanted to "join the peace process" in Sierra Leone, but added that it would be determined after their extradition whether they would face a proposed Special Court being set up jointly by Sierra Leone and the United Nations to try those guilty of war crimes committed in the course of the Sierra Leone conflict. Bockarie has lived in Monrovia since he broke publicly with RUF leader Foday Sankoh in December 1999. Earlier this month, he told reporters he planned to return to Sierra Leone to address what he called "the present leadership crisis and vacuum within the RUF," but after the Liberian government announced his departure, he said he had changed his mind. A government spokesman in Monrovia confirmed this week that Liberia was seeking a third country willing to accept the former rebel commander.

Food distribution at Guinea's Nyaedou refugee camp resumed on Thursday after a two-day suspension due to fighting in nearby Gueckedou, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in Geneva. The agency expressed concern, however, about the overall security situation in the region, where conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees and Guinean residents. Armed men showed up at the Nyaedou and Massakoundou refugee camps for a second straight day on Thursday, ignoring the UNHCR's appeal that they respect the civilian nature of the camps. Other individuals who were unarmed but appeared to be members of Guinean militia groups were also present. Gunmen claiming to belong to the Liberian ULIMO-K faction were seen leaving Massakoundou camp with several bags of food meant for the refugees, the spokesman said. Meanwhile, many of the refugees who had arrived at Nyaedou after fleeing 18 border camps, and who had not received food aid in months, demanded a larger ration. Guinean soldiers who escorted the relief personnel had to break up several disputes among refugees upset with their ration, and frustrated with the precariousness of their situation. In both camps, refugees continued to express a desire to return home rather than wait for food aid. "To get home, however, they must reach the Guinean capital of Conakry, more than 600 kilometres to the west. Those few refugees who have successfully reached Conakry, where they can catch a ship home, report having to pay up to $50 for transport and bribes," the spokesman said. He also noted continued resentment among the local Guinean population toward the refugees. In the town of Dabola, some 230 kilometres north of Kissidougou, some residents have protested plans by the Guinean government and the UNHCR to relocate refugees away from the border regions. "Flyers protesting the resettlement plan have been tacked on walls in Dabola, reportedly containing threats against local officials and UNHCR if they continue with the plan," the spokesman said. Both the agency and local Guinean officials are mounting an information campaign to inform local residents the plans and to seek their support. In an eyewitness account from Kissidougou, BBC West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle said Friday that some of the refugees trapped in the border area had not received food aid for five months, and were increasingly falling prey to armed men from all sides in the conflict. "When I visited one of the refugee camps in the border area I saw a hellish situation where terrified people were having fistfights over dwindling food supplies," Doyle said. "Meanwhile, armed militiamen allied to the Guinea government side in the war swaggered around the camp taking some of the already insufficient supplies." As the UNHCR continues to negotiate with Guinean officials on moving the refugees to safer areas, "time is running out for a quarter of a million people trapped between armed men," Doyle said.

The Liberian government said Friday it was lifting a travel ban it imposed last October against U.S. officials and their families. The measure was a response to a similar ban on travel to the United States by Liberian officials after the U.S. accused Liberia of continuing to support Sierra Leone's RUF rebels. Reginald Goodridge, press secretary to President Charles Taylor, told the BBC the move was an overture by the Liberian leader to the incoming administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. Last week the United States introduced a resolution in the United Nations Security Council which would impose a global travel ban on senior Liberian officials, but Goodridge insisted the Liberian government was seeing what he called "positive signals" coming out of Washington. "The fact that so far the Bush administration has not made any negative remarks about the Liberian government, the fact that President Bush has said that he will review the executive orders that were put into place by his predecessor, the fact that there will be a change in the State Department —  these are all positive signs," Goodridge said, adding that Liberia was looking for an opening to improve relations with the United States. "We, too, must be seen to be doing something to meet them halfway, because as I’ve said, diplomacy is a matter of reciprocity," he said.

Guinea's ambassador to Sierra Leone apologised Friday for recent attacks on Sierra Leonean territory by Guinean helicopter gunships. In one attack last week on Yelibuya Island, a number of civilians were killed and wounded, several homes destroyed, and many residents were forced to flee. "If the air raids by the Guinean air force did indeed spill over to some towns and villages in Sierra Leone as alleged, I would like to apologise to those Sierra Leoneans affected," Ambassador Mohamed Lamine Sompare told the  Reuters news agency in  Freetown. "Guinea has no intention of bombarding her friendly brothers and sisters in Sierra Leone. We are only chasing those who are making life difficult for those peaceful and law-abiding Sierra Leoneans and Guineans in the two countries." UNAMSIL said Friday the number of persons known displaced by the January 20 Yelibuya Island raid had reached 1,500 at Barlo Wharf and 300 at Barbara. Two Guinean helicopters were said to have been employed in the operation, in which fishing boats and the settlement area on the island came under attack. An exchange took place between approximately ten RUF fighters and the gunships, a UNAMSIL spokesperson said, adding that the gunships used conventional guns and may have also used rockets. 

Liberia threatened retaliation Friday for alleged shelling by the Guinean army into the country's northern Lofa County. "The continuous shelling of Liberian territory by Guinean troops is unacceptable," Defence Minister Daniel Chea told reporters late Thursday. "If Guinea continues the artillery shelling on Liberia, we will do what we can to stop it because we have to protect our government, people and young democracy." Chea alleged the bombardment, which he said targeted the town of Foya, was deliberate. "If you are fighting dissidents, the shelling must land on the rebels and not on Liberia. I do not think the shelling was a miscalculation," he said. The accusations drew an angry response from Guinea's embassy in Monrovia. "The government of Guinea...raised a strong and indignant protest against the accusation made against the Guinea army forces, to have shelled the Liberian city of Foya in Lofa County," the embassy said in a statement. In New York, Guinea's ambassador to the United Nations accused Liberia of supporting cross-border attacks by Guinean insurgents and RUF rebels. The charges and counter-charges are only the latest sign of increased tensions between the two countries, which regularly accuse each other of backing attacks by dissidents on their respective territories. Last week Liberia withdrew its ambassador from Conakry, citing a long list of grievances which extend back to 1999. Caught in the middle are some 250,000 Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees and displaced Guineans, stranded beyond the reach of aid agencies and trapped by fighting between the Guinean army, rebel forces, and various militia groups.

The Sierra Leone government announced on Thursday the shortening of the curfew by one hour, the Sierra Leone News Agency (SLENA) reported. The curfew now takes effect at midnight, and ends at 5:30 a.m. 

Preliminary findings by a food security assessment mission to two chiefdoms in Pujehun District indicate that the food security situation in Makeple Chiefdom is stable, but have raised concerns about the availability and accessibility of food in Soro Gbema Chiefdom, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said on Friday. The mission, which included representatives of the WFP and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), recommended the immediate implementation of food-for-agriculture and food-for-work programmes, as well as a school feeding programme. In the Western Area, the WFP has begun monthly distribution of 43 tons of food aid to 6,610 school children at 24 schools through the School Feeding programme. In addition, the WFP distributed food to some 57,000 internally displaced persons at camps in the Western Area during the past week. The agency also distributed food to some 31,700 school children at 65 schools in Bo District, and 8,300 school children in Moyamba District, under the Emergency School Feeding (ESF) programme. The WFP, together with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), conducted a joint assessment of 89 schools in Pujehun District, where CRS will be implementing the ESF programme with the WFP. During the reporting week, the WFP distributed 769 tons of assorted food commodities to 78,370 beneficiaries in Sierra Leone, the agency said.

25 January: Britain and the United States urged the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on Liberia as Council met in open session Thursday to debate the report by a panel of experts on the illicit diamond trade and arms trafficking in Sierra Leone. Sanctions Committee Chairman Ambassador Anwarul Karim Chowdhury of Bangladesh, who presented the report to the Council, said the panel's findings should not end up "on the proverbial shelf, gathering dust," and stressed that all of the recommendations in the report should receive full, due and thorough consideration. While the report named many of those deemed responsible for violating United Nations sanctions and dealing in arms and diamonds with Sierra Leone's RUF rebels, the panel singled out Liberia which, it said, had been "actively supporting the RUF at all levels, in providing training, weapons and related materiel, logistic support, a staging ground for attacks and a safe haven for retreat and recuperation." In response, Liberian Foreign Minister Monie Captan handed out a 150-page line-by-line rebuttal to the panel's 64-page report. He denied his country was involved in illegal activities, and claimed Liberia was being unfairly demonized by what he called "grossly unsubstantiated allegations."  But in an effort to head off the proposed sanctions, Captan told the Council that Liberia was now prepared to cooperate with the world body. He said the U.N. would be asked to post monitors at the country's airports, seaports and borders, and to oversee Liberia's diamond industry. "On the issue of diamonds, the government of Liberia can neither deny nor confirm that the war in Sierra Leone is financed by the sale of conflict diamonds. What the government of Liberia can confirm is that it is not connected, nor is it a party to the illicit trade of Sierra Leone diamonds," he said, adding: "If we are involved in violating the sanctions, why would we want verification? Why would we want monitoring?" But British Deputy Permanent Representative Stewart Eldon told the Council that Liberia's overtures were "too little too late." Even as Liberia was pledging cooperation, Eldon said, there have been increasing reports of Liberian support for recent rebel attacks in Guinea which have left hundreds dead and displaced hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees. "Liberian actions are threatening the stability of the entire region," Eldon said. "It is high time for the Security Council to act." Britain's position was backed by the United States, which last week formally introduced a draft resolution in the Security Council which would impose such sanctions on Liberia as a ban on Liberian diamond and timber exports, a strengthening of the 1998 arms embargo, the grounding of Liberian-registered aircraft, and a travel ban on senior Liberian officials. "We are concerned that these last minute announcements, in the face of imminent council action, are a calculated ruse designed to divide the Security Council rather than to signal any genuine change of policy," said Deputy U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham (pictured right). "The steps announced thus far are unconvincing and not sufficient." French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte also voiced his country's support for the resolution, saying "too many promises have been made in the past for us to settle for mere oratory" from the Liberian government. But Levitte said France preferred that a time limit be placed on embargoes and that the criteria for lifting sanctions should be clearly spelled out. He said his country preferred to see a gradual imposition of the sanctions beginning with a diamond embargo, with other sanctions to be applied in stages if at all. Russia and Ukraine also criticized the report, and accused the panel of exceeding its mandate in proposing remedies and recommending sanctions. Russia has expressed opposition to the diamond certification system, while Ukraine objected to references to arms smuggling by Ukrainian nationals. Perhaps the most vociferous attack on the report was made by Gambian Ambassador Baboucarr-Blaise Jagne, who said he was "flabbergasted" by the report's "malicious allegations" against his country. "What is the motive behind these baseless allegations," Jagne demanded. "Is there a hidden agenda to mount a smear campaign against the Gambia?" The report did not, in fact, name the Gambian government, but noted that Gambian diamond exports to Belgium averaged over $100 million a year between 1996 and 1999. Gambia produces no diamonds of its own, and industry sources were quoted as saying that 90 percent of the exported gems were likely "conflict diamonds" from Sierra Leone. A vote on the sanctions resolution is not expected for some weeks, but Russia, Mali, China and Ukraine all expressed strong reservations over the panel's recommendations.

Sierra Leone's permanent representative to the United Nations told the Security Council Thursday that the findings of a U.N. panel of experts of Liberian backing for the RUF was "credible," and said his country backed a draft resolution which would impose sanctions on the Liberian government. "Against the background of the painful events of the past several years, the revelations contained in the report...and the serious humanitarian crisis now emerging along the borders of the Mano River Union states, we are compelled to say, enough is enough," Ambassador Ibrahim M'baba Kamara told the Security Council. He said Sierra Leone concurred with the main findings of the panel, and in particular with the panel's conclusion that Liberia was actively involved at all levels in providing support for the RUF. "In this regard we concur with the panel that the Security Council should take effective and appropriate mandatory measures to deal with this serious threat to international peace and security," Kamara said. The ambassador referred to the thousands of displaced Sierra Leoneans unable to return to their homes due to conflict while, he said, Liberia was continuing to trade in diamonds and arms with the rebel group in violation of U.N. sanctions. "Some delegations say sanctions should not hurt innocent people of Liberia. We agree," he said. "But for ten years weapons derived from the illicit trade in our diamonds, mainly through Liberia, have been used to kill and maim thousands of our own people. Sierra Leoneans have lives too. We have lost revenue that could have been used for social services for the benefit of our people." Following the Security Council debate, Deputy Permanent Representative for Political Affairs Ambassador Sylvester Rowe (pictured left), told reporters that Sierra Leone was satisfied with the Council proceedings. "In spite of the refutation of some of the revelations in that report, we feel that the report has exposed a whole lot of things that have been going on between Liberia and the RUF, and that it has served a purpose," Rowe said. "Representatives of states have a right to deny whatever is claimed or alleged in the report. We feel that it has served a purpose, because Liberia, for the first time, has come to the United Nations to explain its position." Rowe suggested that the Liberian government had announced it was breaking ties with the RUF only to ward off U.N. sanctions. "That’s why I said that the report has served a purpose," he said. "We feel that they are doing this to forestall action by the Security Council in taking punitive action against them for what they have doing all along in support of the RUF."

Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees at the Nyaedou camp, 15 kilometres north of the Guinean town of Gueckedou expressed "fear, frustration, and desperation to get home," when they met with UNHCR representatives on Wednesday, reporter Ofeibea Quist-Arcton told the BBC. Aid workers pulled out of the camp on Tuesday after the sound of fighting was heard coming from the direction of Gueckedou. "(The refugees) feel that Nyaedou is not a safe area, and they were saying to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representatives who went to the camp yesterday, Wednesday, that they need to be moved and they want to be moved quickly, and they said they don’t want to be at a new safe site, they all want to go home —  even to Sierra Leone or Liberia," said Quist-Arcton, who accompanied the UNHCR team to the camp. She added that the UNHCR's Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Abou Moussa, told the refugees that they would have the option of being repatriated or moved to safer areas of Guinea, but that it would take time. Quist-Arcton told the BBC's Network Africa programme that conditions at Nyaedou camp were generally good. "I was surprised at how many of the refugees looked reasonably well fed and healthy, although there were a lot of sickly babies tied to their mothers’ backs," she said. "There was a little market, there was a clinic, there was a school. I saw a tailor, and there was even a project: one centre for gender-based violence." Some of the refugees had been at the camp for as long as eight years, Quist-Arcton noted, and had settled until the latest trouble along Guinea's borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia. She said the situation in the area appeared to have calmed since Tuesday, but that the refugees were still tense. All, she said, now felt unwelcome by the local population, and many complained they were being targeted by local Guinean soldiers and civilians who accused them of being rebels. Quist-Arcton said the refugees were being recruited by Kamajor militiamen from Sierra Leone, who were apparently fighting alongside the Guinean army. "(The Kamajors) are going into Nyaedou camp and trying to recruit and enroll refugees, including children," she said. "Some refugees say they’ve been told that they’ll be offered safe passage back to Sierra Leone in exchange for serving for the militia groups." The UNHCR, Quist-Arcton said, expressed concern that the presence of militia groups in the camps would lead to the refugees being targeted by the rebel forces. "So they’re saying to people, 'don’t let yourselves be recruited, even if they promise you safe passage'," she said. "'We will get you home if that’s what you want to do, but don’t let yourself be fooled by anyone'."

24 January: Guinean helicopter gunships have reportedly launched new attacks against suspected rebel positions north of Kabala, Sierra Leone's Senior Assistant Police Commissioner, Abu Kamara, told reporters in Freetown on Tuesday. The report has not been independently confirmed. Meanwhile, 800 new internally-displaced persons have arrived at Barlo Wharf since Monday following Friday's reported attack on Yelibuya Island by a Guinean helicopter gunship. According to a UNAMSIL statement, eleven of the civilians who arrived wounded were evacuated to the government hospital at Lungi, while four others who were seriously wounded were airlifted to Freetown for medical treatment by UNAMSIL. Some of the victims had suffered both shrapnel wounds and burns, the statement said. 

Sierra Leone's presidential election, which is due to be held after President Kabbah's five-year term expires next month, may have to be delayed because of a lack of funds and continued instability in the country, National Electoral Commission chairman Walter Nicol told Reuters on Tuesday. "The electoral commission needs a total of about $23 million," Nicol said. "The government of Sierra Leone should provide half of that amount and we are looking to foreign donors for the rest, but they are reluctant because of insecurity in the country." Under the constitution, presidential elections are to be held within three months of the expiration of the president's term. The constitution also provides, however, that "if Sierra Leone is at war in which the national territory is physically involved, and the president considers that it is not practicable to hold elections," that Parliament has the option to extend the president's term, but that "no such extension shall exceed a period of six months at any one time." Last October, President Kabbah told a United Nations Security Council mission that he planned to organise the elections toward the end of 2001, and in a BBC interview shortly afterward suggested that he would be prepared to ask for only a single six-month extension. But in an address to the nation last month, the president said that the holding of elections this year would be linked to an improved security situation in the country.

Liberian Foreign Minister Monie Captan met in New York Wednesday with Ambassador Anwarul Karim Chowdhury of Bangladesh, the chairman of the United Nations Security Council's Sierra Leone Sanctions committee. The meeting took place on the eve of a public Security Council debate on the report by a panel of experts, which documents the link between the illicit diamond trade and arms trafficking in Sierra Leone. The report, which was submitted to the Sanctions Committee last month, accuses Liberia of sanctions-busting and of "actively supporting" Sierra Leone's RUF rebels at all levels —  a charge Liberia denies. Last week, the United States formally introduced a draft resolution which would impose sanctions on Liberia until President Charles Taylor's government "has ceased its support for armed rebel groups of neighbouring countries, in particular its support for the RUF," and agreed to implement U.N. resolutions banning arms sales to Liberia and imposing a global ban on the sale of Sierra Leonean rough diamonds. Following his meeting with Chowdhury, Captan told reporters that Liberia was prepared to cooperate with the Council in order to head off the sanctions. "I don't think punitive sanctions should be the first response of the international community to this problem. I don't think that's going to solve the problem," he said. "What I believe is that the U.N. should say, 'Liberia, you've said you are willing to cooperate...let us take you up on that.' ...You have the option of last resort to impose sanctions." Captan claimed that Liberia had not yet seen any evidence of diamond dealing by Taylor or senior Liberian officials. "We feel Liberia is being demonized," he said. "We believe this matter is far more complicated than people assume it to be, and we believe there has to be far more of an objective investigation into what has happened." He said Liberia was prepared to allow the United Nations to post monitors at its airports, seaports, and borders, and to allow the U.N. to oversee the diamond trade in Liberia, including a new certification system to curb the sale of so-called "conflict diamonds." A diplomatic source told the Sierra Leone Web late Wednesday that Captan had apparently persuaded the Council to defer action on the sanctions resolution until after the arrival in New York of a ministerial-level ECOWAS delegation during the first week in February. "It appears that Mali is trying to develop an ECOWAS position on the Liberian issue," the source said, adding: "We expect many speakers, including the Gambia and Burkina Faso, to defend themselves in tomorrow's debate. The ECOWAS delegation will also be discussing the deployment of ECOWAS military observers along the Guinea-Liberian border."

Some 180,000 Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees stranded without assistance in Guinea's "parrot's beak" region risk being drawn ever deeper into the escalating border conflict as dissidents move into the refugee camps, many of which have been abandoned by aid workers. "There is an element of militia presence in the camps, which is extremely worrisome, as it could make them a target. It is something we have not seen before," United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Peter Kessler told Reuters, adding: "We absolutely have to preserve the civilian nature of the refugee camps." In addition, Kessler said, an estimated 70,000 Guineans had been displaced by the fighting. "They've not only been forced from their huts, they've been forced off their land, so their coping mechanisms have gone," he said. Kessler said the growing instability in Guinea had forced some Sierra Leonean refugees to flee back into rebel-held parts of Sierra Leone. "Basically we're seeing a breakdown of law and order," he said, adding that several hundred of the refugees were known to have made their way to the northern town of Kabala. Kessler said last week that 800 refugees were reported to have reached Kabala, but a Western source who visited the town told the Sierra Leone Web that as of the end of the week "the refugee count in Kabala was 480, give or take an orphan or two." Meanwhile, Guinea is reportedly seeking clarification from ECOWAS over the mandate of a 1,696-member West African force expected to be deployed shortly in the border region. "The Guinean government, as I understand it, is still seeking clarification of...what exactly are they going to do," BBC West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle said on Wednesday. "Are they going to fight the rebels who are clearly attacking southern Guinea? Where are they coming from? Will they arrange the Sierra Leonean and Liberian governments to sort things out first, or will they come in guns blazing? —  which is perhaps unlikely, but the Guineans still are seeking clarification about what they will do and how effective they might be. And so far, all that we’ve had is groups of senior soldiers doing reconnoiters and trying to find out what the situation is, and as yet no concrete force on the ground."

Parliament adjourned in disorder Wednesday after an SLPP-backed motion to delay the election of a new House Speaker to replace the late Sheku M. F. Kutubu resulted in a 31 - 31 tie, VOA correspondent Kelvin Lewis reported. Pandemonium broke out when the acting speaker, A. O. Bangura, ruled in favour of the motion, and opposition parliamentarians accused the ruling SLPP party of trying to manipulate the election process. "I believe a travesty of democratic principles, and a rape of the aspirations of the people has just been committed," said NUP leader Ramadan Dumbuya, who argued that under parliamentary rules a tie vote meant that the motion should have failed. But the majority leader, S. B. Marah, disagreed. "He is chairman, and whenever you have a tie the chairman decides," Marah said. "That’s it. He has no interest." SLPP parliamentarian Ansu Kaikai told the VOA that the ruling party had pushed for the postponement because it hadn't yet settled on whom to back for the post. "The SLPP doesn’t have an official candidate for speaker here," he said.

RUF commanders from Lunsar met Monday with the UNAMSIL Sector 1 commander at Port Loko, UNAMSIL said on Wednesday. The two sides discussed the U.N. force's plans to send a patrol to Lunsar on January 31, proposed repairs to the Kumrabai Bridge, a guarantee of security for non-governmental organisations operating in the area, and the proposed establishment of a joint monitoring group to oversee activities of the various factions in the Sierra Leone conflict. The group could include representatives from the RUF, the Sierra Leone Army, and UNAMSIL, the statement said. The four RUF commanders were named as Colonel Moleski Mohamed Kallon, Lieutenant-Colonel Kodjo, Colonel Kamara and Major Daiki. Meanwhile, ten CDF militiamen, including two child combatants, were disarmed at the Wilberforce Barracks on Tuesday, UNAMSIL said. The two children were handed over to Caritas in Freetown.

A Sierra Leonean parliamentarian has been elected to the 14-member governing Bureau of the ECOWAS Parliament, the regional body said in a statement. Dr. Alex M. Koroma of the opposition National Unity Party was elected to a one-year term as Second Parliamentary Secretary during the Parliament's inaugural meeting in Abuja. A Malian, Professor Ali Nouhoum Diallo, was elected as Speaker. Each of the 16 ECOWAS member states is guaranteed five seats in the Parliament, with the remaining 40 seats allocated on the basis of population. Nigeria has 35 members, Ghana eight and Ivory Coast seven. Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Senegal have six members each, while Sierra Leone, Benin, Cape Verde, the Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Liberia and Togo each have five representatives.

23 January: Liberian President Charles Taylor pledged Tuesday he would resign if a U.N. panel of experts investigating the illicit diamond trade and arms trafficking in Sierra Leone could prove allegations he is helping the RUF to smuggle diamonds. "I have informed the Liberian legislature and the people of Liberia that in the event that this is found to be true, I shall resign my position as president," Taylor said in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan which was read over Liberian radio. Taylor challenged the U.N. to either verify the panel's findings or to exonerate his government.  The Liberian president also called on the U.N. to establish a "blue ribbon panel" to investigate his personal finances, and that if the panel found that he was benefiting from the illegal diamond trade he would resign as president. "In the event that it is determined that I own large personal funds in any foreign accounts, the information should be made public and the funds confiscated and transferred to the Liberian people," he wrote, adding that he had waived "all rights of nondisclosure to all banking institutions." Taylor argued that the movement of large sums of money would necessarily involve cash, cheque or bank transfers which would leave a paper trail. It was reasonable to assume, he said, that if he were involved in diamond smuggling then the United Nations should be able to prove it. The letter was read Tuesday morning during a popular radio call-in talk show in which two presidential spokesmen, John Whitfield and former Deputy Information Minister Milton Teahjay, appeared to defend Taylor's position.

There has been renewed fighting near the Guinean town of Gueckedou, aid workers said on Tuesday. Insurgents first attacked the town in early December, in one of a series of cross-border raids into southeastern Guinea since last September which has displaced hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees and Guinean residents. U.N. aid workers at the Nyaedou refugee camp, ten kilometres north of Gueckedou, reported hearing "heavy exchanges of fire" Tuesday coming from the direction of the town, BBC West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle said. "Aid workers say that they’ve seen truckloads of Guinean soldiers heading towards Gueckedou from the general area of Kissidougou, which is to the north of Gueckedou, and one can only assume that they’re going to try and rout the insurgents," he told the BBC Focus on Africa programme. Doyle said the current military situation in the area remained unclear. "The whole situation is quite chaotic in that border area," he said. "It’s undoubtedly one of the most dangerous areas in the world because of the different warring factions from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea who are operating there, including of course the Guinean army who are trying to protect their territory from these attacks. But it’s complicated by the fact that there are militias loosely allied to the Guinean army: a Liberian dissident faction known as ULIMO-K for example, and even some Sierra Leonean traditional militiamen known as Kamajors in the area according to various reliable reports." United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Peter Kessler told Reuters that UNHCR staff pulled out of the Nyaedou camp when they heard the sound of machine-guns and heavy weapons fire coming from Gueckedou. "Just as we began to get access, we have had to withdraw again," Kessler said. "There seems to be, at least in part, a determined effort to isolate civilians from humanitarian aid." He expressed concern for some 30,000 refugees housed at a camp 30 kilometres north of Gueckedou, many of whom had already fled camps in the so-called "parrots beak" area of Guinea, along the country's border with Sierra Leone and Liberia. "Some of the refugees are frenzied, they don't know where to turn," he said.

A Liberian government spokesman acknowledged Tuesday that former RUF field commander Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie was still in Monrovia despite a previous announcement that he had departed from the country, but he insisted that Liberia was not to blame. "Mr. Sam Bockarie is here, but not on account of anything that the Liberian government has done, as it has been rumoured that we are harbouring him or we are having him under any type of duress or anything like that," Reginald Goodridge told the Voice of America. "He is in Monrovia. He’s a free man, has been a free man here over the past years since the United Nations and the international community acquiesced with his coming here as a means of preventing a breakdown in the Lomé peace process in Sierra Leone." Earlier this month Bockarie announced that he was returning to Sierra Leone to rejoin the RUF, but in a Washington Post interview last week he said he now had no plans to leave Liberia. Goodridge, who is press secretary to President Charles Taylor and also deputy minister of public affairs, brushed aside a suggestion that Liberia might hand Bockarie over to the authorities in Freetown due to his activities in the RUF. "We don’t know if he’s a wanted man," Goodridge said. "This is my first time hearing of this. In terms of the matter of expelling him, I think that Liberia has asked him to leave, which is in a sense an expulsion. There is no official communication from the Sierra Leone government asking for him, and whether he’s a wanted man or not, that is not the concern of the Liberian government." Goodridge insisted that the former rebel commander was in Liberia at the behest of the United Nations and the international community, which had wanted him removed from Sierra Leone to give the peace process a chance to succeed. "Now people are calling for his return," he said. "We are a little bit disappointed, and we believe that some members of the international community have been a little bit hypocritical because they were the ones in the first place that asked us to bring Sam Bockarie here." The spokesman acknowledged that Liberia was engaged in talks with ECOWAS to find a third country willing to accept Bockarie, but he declined to give details. "We don’t want to pre-empt any situation and in so doing bring into the light whatever negotiations are going on," he said. "But rest assured that such discussions are going on, and as soon as a situation is found for the safe conduct of Mr. Bockarie from this country, that will also be made known." Goodridge said Liberia had played an active part in the Sierra Leone peace process, but complained that "we’ve done all of these things and yet this government does not get any credit for trying to help bring peace to Sierra Leone." He dismissed charges, made most recently by a U.N. panel of experts, that the Liberian government was involved in diamond smuggling and arms trafficking in Sierra Leone, and he lashed out at the international community for "threatening to impose crippling sanctions on this country, especially at a time when we are still struggling with our post-war reconstruction." For this reason, Goodridge said, Liberia was disengaging from the peace process in Sierra Leone. "We are not going to use our country as a venue for the passage of RUF personnel again," he said. "We’re not going to use our country as a venue for holding meetings to solve the Sierra Leonean problem. We are going to disengage from the RUF; we are going to disengage from the problem. This is not to say we are not interested in what happens in Sierra Leone. We still want peace to come to Sierra Leone, because peace in Sierra Leone means peace in Liberia." Goodridge noted that while the conflict in Sierra Leone was nearly a decade old, charges of diamond smuggling were only leveled at Liberia in the past two years. "Someone doesn’t like President Charles Taylor out there," he said. "They’re trying to demonize him, they’re trying to discredit him, they’re trying to bring this government down. And all we are saying is that if you are accusing us of doing all of these things, we are going to disengage, we are going to close the border, we are going to protect ourselves and see if this problem is going to be solved. And if it’s not going to be solved, then try and look elsewhere and try to readjust the attitude that we are causing this problem by smuggling diamonds and gun-running."

The Sierra Leone Appeal Court on Monday set aside a High Court judgment against the partly U.S.-owned flour company Seaboard West Africa Ltd., which awarded damages of three billion leones to businessman Eric James, head of James International Enterprises Ltd. The court found for Seaboard on eight of eleven grounds of appeal raised by the company's attorney, Freetown solicitor Abdul Tejan-Cole. "The case of Eric James v. Seaboard has once again restored my faith in the Sierra Leonean judiciary," Tejan-Cole told the Sierra Leone Web. "(The case) is a relatively straight forward case of breach of contract, but from a legal point of view it raises several novel points, including whether a business not registered in Sierra Leone can enforce a contract, the extent of damages to be awarded, etc...The case sends the right signal to foreign businessmen that the laws of Sierra Leone will be interpreted regardless of nationality." James, who is represented by A. F. Serry-Kamal, is expected to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

The rate of return home by Sierra Leonean refugees from Conakry to Freetown by boat is expected to increase with the addition of a second vessel, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Tuesday. The MV Fanta and the MV Oberbeck will transport 500 and 350 persons per day respectively, with departures planned every day except Mondays. This will increase the rate of arrival in Freetown from an average of 1,440 to 2,550 per week, a UNHCR statement said. Since late December the UNHCR, and now the International Organisation for Migrations, have helped 4,700 Sierra Leonean refugees return to Sierra Leone by sea. Meanwhile, refugee transit centres in the Freetown area are rapidly filling up, the agency said. After building several extensions to the two existing centres, the UNHCR opened a third centre at Lumpa on Tuesday. The centre will initially accommodate 1,000 persons, but its capacity will rapidly be increased to between 5,000 and 6,000. The two existing centres at Jui and Waterloo currently house 2,265 people. In Geneva, UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski expressed concern about the challenges facing the returnees. "Most of the people who are going back on these boats are going back to areas where they never lived before," he told the Voice of America. "In fact they come from areas which are controlled Sierra Leone rebels and they cannot go back home, so they have to be accommodated elsewhere. Considering how difficult he situation is in Sierra Leone, it’s quite a challenge to accommodate these people and put them somewhere where they can live and possibly farm without causing friction with the local population, many of whom are also displaced themselves." Even more desperate, Janowski said, was the plight of those refugees trapped in Guinea's so-called "parrot's beak" region along the Sierra Leone border. "To go back (to Sierra Leone) by land they would have to cross rebel-controlled territory and territories controlled by various militias, and that would be extremely dangerous," he said. "And these people have been as far as we know prevented by government forces from going deeper into Guinea and making it to Conakry." He added that the refugees were being prevented from reaching Conakry by roadblocks manned by pro-government militias which operate on both sides of the Sierra Leone - Guinea border.

22 January: More than a week after the Liberian government announced his departure from the country, former RUF field commander Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie is still in Monrovia and has no plans to leave, the Washington Post reported on Monday. Bockarie, who earlier this month said he would return to Sierra Leone to solve what he called "the present leadership crisis and vacuum within the RUF," told Post reporter Doug Farah that he was operating a diamond mine near Monrovia, and had been given a lumber concession. "I am just a businessman now," he said. "I just want to be left alone here to live my life." The former rebel commander said he had abandoned his dream of returning to fight with the RUF because troops loyal to him would split the rebel group into warring factions. "I want to forget about the war in Sierra Leone, and I am happy here," he said. "My family is here. Where else could I go? I just want to do big business here, so big that next time you see me you will be ashamed." He added that Liberian President Charles Taylor was like his father and would never force him to go. But the Liberian government, facing the prospect of international sanctions over its alleged support for the RUF and for its involvement in the illicit arms-for-diamonds trade, has made no secret of the fact that it would like to see Bockarie's back. "(Bockarie is) a monkey on my shoulder that I'm trying to unload, and I hope we can do it soon," Taylor told the Post. "We are looking for anybody who is prepared to take him. But I will be the first to state that we want to get him out of here yesterday, we want him out sooner than later." Other RUF members residing in Monrovia have apparently left the Liberian capital. Farah quoted sources as saying at least six transport helicopter-loads of RUF combatants, liaison personnel and their families had been flown from Monrovia to Sierra Leone. In addition, several rebel safe houses and the RUF communications centre had also been closed, the sources said. Meanwhile, Liberia's pro-government Monrovia Guardian newspaper quoted a foreign ministry source Monday as saying that while "all the liaison officers and relatives of top brass of the RUF" had departed, Bockarie was still in the Liberian capital. "The continued presence of Sam Bockarie is predicated upon the fact that the RUF commanders in Sierra Leone have refused to allow him entry into areas controlled by the warring factions," the source was quoted as saying, adding that the Liberian government was consulting with ECOWAS to identify a third country willing to accept him. "The government of Liberia has resolved to do all within its powers to clear its name from unfounded allegations that Liberia is supporting the RUF in its war effort in Sierra Leone," the source said. 

Liberian Foreign Minister Monie Captan will put his country's case against proposed U.N. sanctions to the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, when the Council meets to debate the report by a panel of experts on diamond smuggling and arms trafficking in Sierra Leone. The panel has said it found "unequivocal and overwhelming evidence that Liberia has been actively supporting the RUF at all levels" —  a charge Liberia denies. Captan left for New York on Monday.

A Guinean helicopter gunship attacked the Sierra Leonean town of Yelibuya on Sunday, BBC correspondent Sylvester Rogers reported. Residents fleeing the area spoke of some civilian deaths, but no details were available. The Guineans have launched a number of reprisal raids in recent months against Sierra Leone's RUF rebels, who they blame for attacks on Guinean territory.

Liberia and Guinea have continued to trade charges over incursions along their common border, even as aid agencies struggle to assist vast numbers of refugees displaced by recent fighting in southeastern Guinea. In August 1999, thousands of Sierra Leoneans refugees were among those forced to flee when insurgents launched cross-border attacks into Liberia's northern Lofa County. More recently, Guinea has accused Liberia of instigating a series of rebel attacks on its territory which began in September, and which have displaced hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees and Guinean nationals. Last week, Liberia recalled its ambassador from Conakry, citing a long list of grievances and accusing Guinea of support for a group of dissidents who, it said, were preparing to attack Liberia. In a BBC interview broadcast on Monday, Liberian Foreign Minister Monie Captan said that recalling the ambassador was "a sign of protest to Guinea." He insisted that Liberian President Charles Taylor had expressed willingness to hold talks with President Lansana Conte of Guinea over the problem between the two countries, but said Conte had declined. "He doesn’t see dialogue as the solution," Captan said. "If he doesn’t see dialogue as the solution, then one would wonder what is his perception of a solution to the problem between Liberia and Guinea." Captan accused Guinea of harbouring Liberian dissidents from the former ULIMO and LPC factions who, he said, "have been trained, armed and equipped inside Guinea," but denied his country had reciprocated by supporting Guinean rebels. "We have told the Guinean government that we reserve the right to take action, punitive action, against any aggression against our territory. We have not done so," he said.

Britain's Head of the Land Command, General Sir Mike Jackson, arrived in Freetown Sunday, according to a statement by the U.K. Joint Task Force in Sierra Leone. Jackson's visit to Sierra Leone was the second by a high-ranking British military official within the past week.  

21 January: The Sierra Leone government has reacted cautiously to a pledge by Liberian President Charles Taylor to "disengage" from the Sierra Leone peace process and to cut all ties with the country's RUF rebels. Deputy Defence Minister Sam Hinga Norman told the BBC Sunday that the government welcomed the statement, but was waiting to see concrete evidence of a change on the ground. "We have not as yet seen sufficient evidence of the policy on the ground on the issue of cutting ties in Sierra Leone," Norman said, adding: "We do not want to doubt the authenticity (of the statement), but we are only saying since we have not seen evidence on the ground, we intend to just make sure that we at least analyse the situation, maybe as events are moving on." Norman said he had not yet been in contact with the Liberian authorities over their announced change in policy. "I have only taken a look at this statement which I say it is better that we make the comment that until and unless we see evidence on the ground we are yet to evaluate the situation as events unfold," he said.

The Liberian government announced Sunday it was grounding all Liberian-registered aircraft until the planes' owners could document that they were in compliance with all Liberian civil aviation laws and regulations, as well as standards of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). A Ministry of Information statement urged aviation authorities worldwide "to assist in the enforcement of the aircraft grounding order." The press release referred to irregularities discovered in the Liberian aircraft registry, and said the measure was an attempt to increase its effectiveness. Accordingly, it said, the Ministry of Transport had revoked the appointments of all agents who had been acting on behalf of the Liberian government in matters of aircraft inspection and registration. Because of its lax license and tax laws, Liberia has for many years been a "flag of convenience" for what a U.N. panel of experts investigating arms trafficking and diamond smuggling in Sierra Leone called "the fringe air cargo industry." In its report issued last month, the panel found that the Liberian "EL" registry was "clearly connected to illegal activities that go beyond the economic rationale for the offshore registration of aircraft or crews" and that Liberian-registered planes were frequently used to transport illegal arms shipments. The Liberian Civil Aviation Authorities and the Ministry of Transport were unable to tell the panel how many planes carried Liberian registrations, and maintained that the documentation had been lost or was destroyed due to the Liberian Civil War. In its recommendations to the United Nations Security Council, the panel called for the immediate grounding of all planes bearing the EL registration number, and said operators should be required to file their airworthiness and operating licenses and their insurance documents with the ICAO's headquarters in Montreal, including documentation on all inspections carried out during the past five years. Aircraft belonging to operators who refused to comply would have their planes grounded, and planes which failed to meet ICAO standards would be grounded permanently.

The plight of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees in southeastern Guinea remains precarious, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Peter Kessler said on Sunday after returning from a visit to the town of Kissidougou. Kessler told the BBC that that while the situation there had calmed down following rebel attacks in mid-December, the town was still tense. "The rebels came very, very close to Kissidougou, and of course Gueckedou, which was under attack last Saturday and again on Monday, is not very far away," he said. Kessler said the UNHCR and other aid agencies were currently providing assistance to upwards of 50,000 Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees at the Nyaedou and Massakoundou camps, but that an estimated 180,000 refugees and 70,000 displaced Guineans were still stranded in Guinea's volatile "parrot's beak" area along the country's borders with Liberia and Sierra Leone. "There are a great many people who are in a very precarious situation, who fled their homes already, and many of them have even fled the refugee camps where they’ve been living for the last years," Kessler said, adding that some of the refugees had received no food rations since September. He referred to reports by some refugees that Kamajor militiamen were advising them to return to Sierra Leone as soon as they received food. "Food distributions are ongoing, but they’re very chaotic, and that’s a real problem," he said. "We need to see much greater security in and around the refugee camps —  security being controlled by the Guinean authorities, not by Liberian or Sierra Leonean foreigners, who seem to have a big hand in the situation right now." He said the Guinean army had a big military presence in the Gueckedou area, and that aid agencies were not allowed access to the region. "It’s still a very tenuous situation, and the fact that so many refugees are so frightened, we have to redouble our efforts to set up new refugee camps further into the interior and look at possibilities to get people back if they’d rather go back home to their home countries," he said, adding: "It’s a situation completely out of sight, yet one of the most alarming we’re seeing in Africa."

20 January: Liberia has announced it will abandon its efforts to restore peace in Sierra Leone, the Associated Press reported on Saturday. The decision was taken Friday at the first cabinet meeting of the year to protest against accusations, made most recently by a U.N. panel of experts, of trafficking in arms and and illicit diamonds, and of actively supporting Sierra Leone's RUF rebels —  a charge the Liberian government has denied. "Despite the level of interest it has shown over the last year in ensuring that its neighbor, Sierra Leone, regains peace and stability, the international community continues to picture the Liberian government negatively," Liberian President Charles Taylor said Saturday on his private radio station, KISS-FM. The BBC quoted Taylor as saying the decision to disengage was a difficult one, but that he had to bear in mind Liberia's best interests. Meanwhile, the United States this week formally introduced a resolution in the United Nations Security Council which would impose sanctions on the Liberian government in support of the world body's demand that Liberia "immediately cease its financial, military, material, and other support for armed rebel groups in neighbouring countries, in particular its support of the RUF in Sierra Leone." Liberian Foreign Minister Monie Captan is expected to address the Council next Thursday when it debates the panel's report on diamond smuggling and arms trafficking in Sierra Leone, a source at the U.N. told the Sierra Leone Web.

19 January: The first meeting of the UNAMSIL and RUF core contact group took place Wednesday at Mile 91, according to a UNAMSIL statement. The UNAMSIL delegation was led by the Head of the Policy and Planning Section and included both civilians and military officers. The RUF delegation was led by Colonel Edward Sembey. The two sides agreed to establish regional contact groups at Daru, Kenema, Mange and Mile 91, the statement said. The groups will meet weekly, while the core group will meet every other week or whenever requested by either side in the event of an emergency. UNAMSIL will search all vehicles plying the roads to ensure they are not carrying "lethal materials," the statement said.

Former Speaker of Parliament and Chief Justice Sheku M. F. Kutubu received a state funeral in Freetown on Friday. Kutubu died January 4 at Choithram Hospital after suffering an apparent heart attack.

Liberian President Charles Taylor, facing the prospect of United Nations sanctions against Liberia over diamonds-for-arms sales in support of Sierra Leone's RUF rebels, said Friday he would pursue a policy of "complete disengagement" with the rebel group, and would adopt voluntarily several of the measures recommended last month by a U.N. panel of experts. "It is the intention of Liberia to sever all links to the RUF, both formal and informal," Taylor told the Washington Post in an interview at the Executive Mansion. He added that a large contingent of RUF leaders departed from Monrovia on Thursday. Taylor's pledge comes as the U.N. Security Council is set to consider a U.S.-sponsored resolution imposing a range of sanctions on the Liberian government, including a ban on diamond and timber sales and an international travel ban on senior Liberian officials. These sanctions would "kill Liberia," Taylor told the Post. Taylor has long acknowledged ties with the RUF, but has insisted that he has used the relationship to work for peace in the sub-region. He said Friday that his decision to now sever ties with the rebels was "a kind of protest."  "We are saying, 'You used us to do what you wanted to do when you wanted us, and now we are supposed to be the bad guys'," Taylor said. " 'So do it your own way and just leave Liberia alone'." The Liberian president called the U.N. panel's report a "political document," but said his government accepted it "with deep reservations." He told the newspaper he had ordered the grounding of all Liberian-registered aircraft until they could be inspected and registered to prevent their use in arms trafficking, and that he would ask a U.N. group to oversee the sale of Liberia's diamonds. He also repeated an offer to resign if any U.N. member state could discover evidence that he had stashed a personal fortune in overseas bank accounts. Taylor claimed that the proposed sanctions were part of a U.S. campaign to "demonize" him and to "bring this government down, or maybe even assassinate the president."  "What has Liberia done that is so bad to deserve this?" Taylor asked. "We have been allies for 150 years, but they shut every door on us. So what else can we conclude but that this is what happens when they want to take a guy out? It is terrible."

Since January 9 the transit camp in Conakry for refugees wanting to return to Sierra Leone has received approximately 300 new arrivals per day, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said on Friday. The total number of refugees in the camp, constructed to house 3,000 persons, has now reached 3,675. To date, more than 4,000 Sierra Leonean refugees have been repatriated to Freetown by boat, where they are then relocated to two transit camps operating at Jui and Waterloo. The WFP and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently carried out a food security assessment at Soro Gbema and Makpele Chiefdoms in Pujehun District, to evaluate the overall food security situation and to determine whether refugees have begun returning to the area. Both areas are close to the Liberian border, where there have reportedly been cross-border attacks.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) called Friday for the immediate relocation of an some 250,000 Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees in Guinea's trouble Gueckedou Prefecture, where recent fighting has put at risk hundreds of thousands of both refugees and Guinean residents. Particularly in the country volatile "parrot's beak" region bordering Liberia and Sierra Leone, an estimated 180,000 refugees and 70,000 displaced Guineans have been stranded by the fighting, making humanitarian assistance "is permanently hampered and intermittently impossible, MSF said in a press statement. Following a January 12 attack by insurgents, many of the refugees have attempted to reach the Nyaedou camp north of Gueckedou. But the Nyaedou camp itself has been threatened by armed groups and cannot be considered safe, MSF said. "Urgent action is needed before it is too late, said Dr. Morten Rostrup, president of MSF's International Council, who visited the area this month. "If the relocation is not being implemented immediately, MSF fears a further deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the region and we may face soon a major humanitarian crisis." The MSF statement referred to plans to relocate refugees to safer areas near the towns of Albadaria and Dabola, but warned that the existing time frame would not allow the necessary immediate solution to the problem. "MSF finds the current situation unacceptable," the statement said. "To guarantee the security of the refugees, which should now be the highest priority, the relocation process must accelerate regardless of potential logistical constraints. MSF therefore urges the Guinean government and the UNHCR to sign proper agreements immediately in order to facilitate and accelerate transport of refugees to the new locations."

On the last full day of his eight years in office, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed an executive order Friday prohibiting the import of diamonds from Sierra Leone into the United States unless they are accompanied by a government-issued certificate of origin. The order brings the U.S. into compliance with last July's United Nations Security Council, which imposed a global embargo on all rough Sierra Leonean diamonds. The illicit trade in so-called "conflict diamonds" is blamed for fueling conflicts in Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A bipartisan bill introduced last year by Representatives Tony Hall and Frank Wolf aimed at preventing the import of conflict diamonds into the United States stalled in committee in October.

The outgoing U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, criticised the United Nations Friday for not fully implementing a Security Council resolution adopted last July mandating information on AIDS be provided to U.N. peacekeepers serving in Sierra Leone and in other U.N. missions around the world. "This has to be a core function" of the peacekeeping office, Holbrooke told the Security Council during his final day at the U.N. "Otherwise, it doesn't make sense, and the U.N. will end up causing more deaths than lives they save." He called two books given to U.N. troops as "technical, wordy and out of date," and buried the fact that people can die from the HIV virus. "We spend billions of dollars on peacekeeping," he said. "But not even $500,000 was spent to protect troops from HIV/AIDS. I am encouraged about what I heard but obviously not satisfied." Holbrooke also pointed to the problem of testing. Some troop-contributing countries cannot afford to test their troops, while others, he suggested, feared the stigma of discovering how many of their soldiers carry the disease. In response, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guéhenno pointed to training courses his department had developed, along with the wide distribution of condoms. Guéhenno acknowledged that some of the U.N. peacekeepers came from countries where AIDS infection rates are soaring, but said the U.N. cannot force the testing of troops before, during or after their arrival on a mission. 

Among the images "etched most clearly" in her mind during her eight-year tenure as U.S. Secretary of State were the faces of Sierra Leonean children whose limbs were amputated during the country's brutal civil conflict, Madeleine Albright told State Department workers on Friday. "I have been called the most powerful woman in the world," Albright said. "But there have been times when I could not speak." Albright, who visited Sierra Leone in October 1999, steps down Saturday as President Bill Clinton turns over the reins of power to former Texas governor George W. Bush.

Relief agencies have begun to resume work in parts of southern Guinea after having been forced to scale down operations earlier this week as a result of new fighting at the weekend, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said Friday in Geneva. The UNHCR and the Red Cross have begun food deliveries to longtime residents of Nyaedou camp, 15 kilometres north of Gueckedou, and to thousands of other refugees who fled camps further south to escape the fighting, according to UNHCR spokesperson Delphine Marie. She said that by Friday more than 25,000 Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees would have received a one-month ration (amounting to 1,600 kilocalories per day) of corn flour, dried beans and vegetable oil. This is far below the U.N.'s recommended 2,500 kcal./day, but is the maximum food aid currently available, she said. As soon as possible, food will be distributed to some 35,000 refugees at the Massakoundou camp, 10 kilometres southwest of Kissidougou, and to 12,000 mainly Sierra Leonean refugees who fled to several sites along the road north of Kissidougou. The UNHCR's partner, Medècins sans Frontiéres, has established health posts in several camps and started a vaccination campaign against measles, Marie added. Meanwhile, refugees at the Nyaedou camp have told aid workers they preferred to return to Sierra Leone rather than to rely on the precarious aid pipeline into southern Guinea. Marie said the UNHCR had received reports of refugees crossing dangerous rebel-held areas to return directly to Sierra Leone from southern Guinea after their movement towards Conakry was blocked by Guinean security forces. The first priority for the UNHCR, she said, was to evacuate some 200,000 stranded refugees from Guinea's volatile "parrot's beak" region and move them to safer sites.

On Wednesday the vessel MV Overbeck, chartered by the International Organisation for Migrations (IOM), returned 353 Sierra Leonean refugees from Conakry to Freetown. The IOM took over the voluntary repatriation from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) earlier this month. According to a statement attributed to IOM spokesperson Niurka Piñeiro, the IOM said it will begin operating a second chartered boat, the MV Fanta, within a few days in order to increase the return capacity between Conakry and Freetown. "As of next week, an average of 2,500 persons a week are expected to return to Freetown with IOM assistance. This should contribute to decongest and defuse rising tensions in Conakry's overcrowded transit centre," Piñeiro said. To date, some 4,000 Sierra Leoneans have been returned to Freetown under the programme.

18 January: The United States formally introduced a resolution in the United Nations Security Council Thursday which would impose a range of sanctions on Liberia, intended to stop that country from trading in illicit diamonds and weapons with Sierra Leone's RUF rebels. A report issued last month by a U.N. panel of experts found there was "unequivocal and overwhelming evidence that Liberia has been actively supporting the RUF at all levels, in providing training, weapons and related matériel, logistical support, a staging ground for attacks, and a safe haven for retreat and recuperation." The U.S.-sponsored resolution, which is strongly backed by Britain, calls on all U.N. member nations to "prohibit the direct or indirect import of all rough diamonds from Liberia to or through its territory," and also bans the export of Liberian timber, whether "rough or whether or not stripped of bark or sapwood or roughly squared." The U.N. panel alleged that the principals of Liberia's timber industry were involved in a variety of illicit activities, and that "large amounts of the proceeds are used to pay for extra-budgetary activities, including the acquisition of weapons." The resolution would impose a flight ban on all Liberian-registered aircraft, and broaden an arms embargo first imposed in November 1992. It would also impose a travel ban on senior Liberian officials and military commanders and adult family members. The sanctions would remain in place until the U.N. secretary-general certified that Liberia was no longer involved in the illicit diamonds and arms trade. 

Liberia recalled its ambassador to Guinea on Thursday amid charges of Guinean government support for Liberian dissidents who, the Liberian foreign ministry claimed last week, were preparing to launch cross-border attacks into the country's northwestern Lofa County. Guinea, for its part, has accused Liberia of backing insurgents who have launched a series of attacks into its territory since last September, displacing hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees and Guinean residents. The Liberian foreign ministry, in a statement released Tuesday night, said staff at its embassy in Conakry had been reduced, adding that it was constrained to take these measures because of "the continued acts of aggression and unfriendly acts perpetrated by the government of Guinea against the Republic of Liberia." 

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said Thursday it was increasingly concerned about the plight of over 200,000 Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees and displaced Guineans trapped by conflict in Guinea's so-called "parrot's beak" region along the country's borders with Liberia and Sierra Leone. "I fear serious malnutrition problems may soon set in on these," said Ardag Meghdessian, the WFP's representative in Conakry. He told reporters that the estimated needs for last year and for the first weeks of 2001 had been far too low due to increased fighting, which has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee the area. "If we do not have urgent additional supplies from donor communities, refugees here might be heading for the worst," he said. Meghdessian said the WFP had just reopened its office in Kissidougou, which was forced to close late last year after insurgents launched attacks in the area. The WFP is currently providing food for some 85,000 refugees and displaced persons in Guinea, Meghdessian said.

Sorius Samura's documentary "Cry Freetown" was among Wednesday's winners of the prestigious duPont Award, presented annually by the Columbia School of Journalism to journalists working in the field of radio and television news. During the January 1999 rebel attack on Freetown Samura, who was at the time working on a film project for UNICEF, took his camera into the streets and, at the risk of his life, filmed atrocities committed by both rebel forces and ECOMOG troops during the battle for the city. "We wanted everybody to understand, but nobody heard us," Samura said in accepting the award. The documentary, originally released last year under the name "Out of Africa," has also received the Rory Peck award, the Mohamed Amin Award, Free Press-Africa award, the One World Media award for best television documentary, and the ICRC Dignity in Conflict Award.

Fatou Mbaye Sankoh, the Senegalese-born American wife of imprisoned RUF leader Foday Sankoh, has asked an unnamed Nigerian attorney to represent her in her petition to have a Nigerian human rights commission investigate the arrest and detention of her husband after he travelled to Nigeria in March 1997, the Lagos-based P.M. News reported on Thursday. The commission, led by Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, was set up by the Nigerian government to look into abuses committed by the regime of the late military dictator General Sani Abacha. In a December 20 letter to the commission, Mrs. Sankoh stated that her husband had visited Nigeria "as part of a planned tour of the sub-region for the purpose of soliciting support for the full implementation of the Abidjan Accord" —  a tour necessitated, she said, by the need "to seek assistance in stopping the fighting between the Kamajors and the Sierra Leone Army at that time." Foday Sankoh, who had remained in Abidjan after signing the peace agreement at the end of November 1996, made an apparently unannounced visit to Nigeria in March 1997, where he was arrested and charged with weapons violations. In her letter, Mrs. Sankoh noted that her husband was only released from Nigerian detention "two years later" (in July 1998), and handed over to the Sierra Leone government. He was subsequently convicted of treason for issuing orders to his followers by satellite telephone to join forces with the AFRC military junta after the May 1997 coup, and was sentenced to death. He was later released to attend peace talks in Lomé, Togo, and joined the government as chairman of Commission for the Management of Strategic Resources, National Reconstruction and Development after the signing of the Lomé Peace Accord. Sankoh was again detained in May 2000 after the collapse of the peace process, and following an incident at his residence when his followers opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators. "My husband told me about this experience and revealed that President Kabbah was part of the conspiracy along with his friend, Abacha, to have Foday arrested and detained in Nigeria," Mrs. Sankoh said.

17 January: Britain's Chief of General Staff, General Sir Michael Walker, arrived in Sierra Leone on Tuesday, where he met with President Kabbah and British High Commissioner Alan Jones, according to a statement issued by the U.K. Task Force in Sierra Leone. Walker also visited British forces training Sierra Leonean soldiers at the Benguema Military Training Centre, and visited recently-trained officers and soldiers of the Sierra Leone Army's Fifth Brigade at Masiaka. The African-born Walker was appointed Chief of General Staff in April of last year.

The first meeting of a newly-formed contact group between UNAMSIL and the RUF was due to meet Wednesday at Mile 91, according to a UNAMSIL statement.

The commander of the Sierra Leone Army's First Battalion has confirmed that the RUF has repaired the Bumbuna - Magburaka and Bumbuna - Binkolo roads in northern Sierra Leone, UNAMSIL said on Wednesday. The roads remain closed, however, as Defence Headquarters has not yet given instructions to open them.

Richard Holbrooke, the outgoing U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, criticised the world body Wednesday for what he called a "continuing shortfall" in peacekeeping and combating AIDS in Africa. Pointing to Sierra Leone, which has suffered a decade of civil conflict, Holbrooke said that the current fragile calm was not good enough. "It will only get better if the U.N. takes an aggressive leadership role," he said. He added that while the international community must give all sides to a conflict a chance to accept a negotiated settlement, in a case like Sierra Leone the U.N. could not remain impartial. "Let us be honest, that if one side is the primary cause of the problem that we have to let the U.N. show its feelings," he said. "In that regard I’m very pleased that recent resolutions last year on diamonds and other issues on the countries we feel are most responsible for this situation. In Sierra Leone, what we have is a fragile, but democratically-elected government trying against considerable odds to deal with one of the world’s most repugnant insurgencies, the RUF." Holbrooke, who made Africa one of his priorities during his tenure at the U.N., was also critical of the OAU, which he said was sometimes "less than the sum of its parts," especially when it came to Sierra Leone. In a veiled reference to Liberia, which a U.N. panel of experts accused last month of backing Sierra Leone's RUF rebels, Holbrooke suggested that the OAU might consider refusing to seat governments which cling to power by unconstitutional means.  

16 January: Renewed fighting in southeastern Guinea has dashed hopes for a speedy delivery of humanitarian aid to an estimated 180,000 Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees and 70,000 displaced Guineans in the country's troubled "parrot's beak" region, according to a statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Aid agencies have been unable to assist the stranded refugees since fighting broke out in the area in early December. The latest unrest in the region prompted the agency to withdraw 25 staff members from its regional base at Kissidougou on Tuesday, leaving 45 UNHCR staff members who will continue to provide assistance wherever possible. Food distribution was scheduled to begin Tuesday at the refugee camp in Massakoundou, ten kilometres southwest of Kissidougou, the agency said. The camp's population has increased from 20,000 to 35,000 over the past few weeks due to an influx of refugees who fled the fighting along Guinea's borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia. The UNHCR is going ahead with the preparation of two new camp sites which will be able to  house some 40,000 refugees fleeing the border area. During a brief visit to Gueckedou on Monday, aid workers found the town almost entirely deserted amid a heavy military presence, the UNHCR said. At the weekend, 1,000 refugees seeking to escape fighting in the town flooded into the nearby Nyaedou camp. The group included two young men who suffered gunshot wounds while working in their fields. Meanwhile, UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler told the BBC Tuesday that aid workers who visited refugees in the Gueckedou region early last week found them to be in a precarious condition. "They’ve been without any substantial medical aid in months," he said. "They’ve required medical kits with even the most basic materials: malaria medication, aspirin. Another problem that we’re facing now is an outbreak of yellow fever across Guinea, and that requires an urgent vaccination effort that’s just not possible with the people cut off like they are." Kessler said that not enough food aid was arriving in the country, and that both refugees and displaced Guineans could face shortfalls in the coming months. The spokesman also noted that attempts by refugees to return to Sierra Leone had, in some cases, made their condition even worse. "Some 800 refugees (who) tried to make their way back into Conakry and then into Sierra Leone found themselves under such difficult pressure from the rebels, being robbed and attacked along the way, they opted to travel into Sierra Leone directly instead of going through Conakry," he said. "They’re now caught in a government enclave at Kabala in the north of Sierra Leone in a very precarious situation. Other groups of people of course are trying to move in Guinea, but they’re all being caught up in the military effort underway and being blocked at checkpoints along with, of course, displaced Guineans." Kessler said the refugees in Guinea were not like the "pampered refugees" in Kosovo, and that despite having what he called "coping mechanisms" their situation was very fragile. "We certainly hope that donors will come through with the food aid necessary, the financial aid necessary, to make purchases on the local market," he said. "But as well that the neighbouring states will control their borders, that arms will stop flowing in to rebel groups in the region, and that some kind of peace and security will be restored. But certainly right now that seems a long way off."

Fighting between Guinean government forces and insurgents has forced sixteen humanitarian agencies, including Medècins sans Frontiéres and Action Contre la Faim, to pull out of Guinea's troubled Gueckedou region, where more than 200,000 Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees are thought to be stranded without food or medicine, BBC Conakry correspondent Alhassan Sylla reported on Tuesday. Guinean state radio confirmed for the first time Monday evening that insurgents had carried out a series of attacks in the Gueckedou area, including on the town centre, Sylla said, adding that Guinean forces claimed to have pushed them back and appeared ready to counter any moves by the attackers. "Gueckedou is known to have like 21 sectors...and (the government) has mobilised all the vigilantes from these areas and these are moving forward to counter the rebels. So the situation is really becoming dramatic at the moment," Sylla said. Government forces claimed to have killed 75 rebel fighters, a number which could not be independently confirmed. "(People say) they’ve seen the severed heads of supposed rebels; that is to say, rebels who were killed by government forces," Sylla said. "And they were kind of pathetic and killed in a very, very gory manner. So for the first time we are hearing reports of heads of rebels and even rebel sympathisers having been severed and their heads being displayed on trees all around the town of Gueckedou." Meanwhile, the plight of the refugees has grown even more desperate. "In the face of these intensified battles there’s very little (aid agencies) can do," Sylla said.

President Kabbah travelled by helicopter to Port Loko District on Monday, where Sierra Leone Army troops are holding frontline positions, BBC Freetown correspondent Lansana Fofana reported. The area has seen an influx of  returning refugees who have fled recent fighting in Guinea, and Fofana noted that the president's visit "also addressed the issue of reintegrating these people who have been displaced for considerable length of time."

Discussion of conflicts in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia is on the agenda for the 21st Franco-Africa Summit opening this week in Yaounde, Cameroon, Radio France International reported on Tuesday.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan responded to the United Nations Security Council Tuesday with a defence of his recommendations for the creation of a Special Court for Sierra Leone. In August last year the Council authorised the creation of a joint international and Sierra Leonean court, and proposed that it would have jurisdiction over those "who bear the greatest responsibility" for the commission of "crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, as well as crimes under relevant Sierra Leonean law." The Council recommended that the court be funded by voluntary contributions from member states, and requested that Annan send a team of experts to Sierra Leone to work out details on implementing the Council resolution. The panel's findings, which were embodied in Annan's report to the Council last October, included a recommendation that the court should have jurisdiction over those deemed "most responsible" for serious offenses —  a wider legal standard than the Council had suggested. Annan also recommended that the court have a separate appeals chamber, endorsed the prosecution of minors aged 15 to 18 who had committed serious offenses, and called for the court to be funded by assessed contributions from member states rather than by voluntary contributions. But in a letter to Annan in late December, the Council stood by its original draft as regards the courts jurisdiction, and rejected the idea of assessed contributions as a way of funding the court. While endorsing the possibility of prosecuting juvenile offenders, the Council set legal standards which would make such prosecutions highly unlikely. In his response on Tuesday, Annan warned that the phrase "persons who bear the greatest responsibility" would not be sufficient to limit the court's jurisdiction to political and military leaders only, and that a final determination of the meaning of the phrase might fall to the court itself. "Any such determination will have to be reconciled with an eventual prosecution of juveniles and members of a peacekeeping operation, even if such prosecutions are unlikely," he wrote. On the question of funding, Annan warned of the risks involved in establishing the court without sufficient funds to support its first three years of operation. "I would, therefore, propose that the process of establishing the court shall not commence until the United Nations Secretariat has obtained sufficient contributions in hand to finance the establishment of the court and 12 months of its operation, as well as pledges equal to the anticipated expenses of the following 24 months," he said.

The United Nations needs to provide a clear understanding between those who prepare mandates for peacekeeping missions and those who carry them out, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette (pictured left)  told the Security Council on Tuesday. "Troop contributors need to know clearly what Security Council members envision and Security Council members need to understand what troop contributors are prepared to do," Fréchette said during a day-long open Council debate on strengthening relations with troop-contributing countries, chaired by Singaporean Foreign Minister S. Jayakumar. She said a central aspect of this effort would be to improve cooperation between the U.N. Secretariat, the Security Council, and troop-contributing nations. "This will help us address such problems as commitment gaps in the contribution of troops, failures or shortcomings in the operations, and problems concerning safety and security," she said. Fréchette said the U.N. Secretariat was committed to providing accurate and timely information to the Council, and to proposing options for action and assessing the risks and costs of each of these options, but added: "At the same time, we must provide troop contributors with the information necessary to decide whether they wish to participate in a particular operation, including the requirements and risks that are involved." The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone, or UNAMSIL, has found it particularly difficult to attract commitments of peacekeeping troops, especially since the near-collapse of the mission last May. With the withdrawal of the Indian and Jordanian contingents, the force is now some 2,500 troops short of its authorised strength of 13,000, and the U.N. is nowhere near receiving the commitments necessary to increase its size to 21,500, as proposed last year by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Representatives of the two countries withdrawing their troops from Sierra Leone demanded Tuesday that they be given more say in how their soldiers are used. "Troop contributing countries put at risk the lives of their soldiers in the service of the United Nations...strikingly more than do members of the Council," said Indian Ambassador Kamalesh Sharma. "These members should at least take the lead in ensuring that troop contributors have an effective say in the conduct of peacekeeping operations." Jordanian Ambassador Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein agreed: "While we are prepared to serve with others, anywhere and everywhere, we are not prepared to be the servants of others —  obeying blindly, unquestioning," he said. He noted that some members of the Council contributed to peacekeeping operations, but not to risky ones which require battalion-strength contingents. "One cannot but help feel there is something desperately wrong and immoral about all of this," he said. British Ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock said a working group of the Council set up to deal with general peacekeeping issues would be a first step to addressing some of the recommendations for reform made in last year's Brahimi Report. "The troop contributors will have to accept that the council makes its own decisions, in line with its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security," Greenstock said. "But we must increasingly do so on the basis of the widest possible consultation."

15 January: UNAMSIL force commander Lieutenant-General Daniel Opande (pictured right) and other UNAMSIL officials met with RUF commanders on Saturday at Lunsar, a spokesperson told journalists. The RUF delegation, which included Colonel Moleski Mohamed Kallon, Lieutenant-Colonel Lamin S. Mansaray, Lieutenant-Colonel Kodjo, and Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Kaikai, invited U.N. peacekeepers to deploy at Lunsar, while stressing the need for humanitarian assistance for the town's residents. During discussions with the U.N. officials, the commanders expressed concern over security for their ex-combatants after disarmament, and argued that the Sierra Leone Army and the CDF should also be disarmed. The RUF commanders told UNAMSIL they objected to the word "surrender" which was used in the old DDR (Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration) leaflet, and suggested that it be replaced by the word "disarm." They also expressed opposition to the British presence in Sierra Leone. As a confidence-building measure, Opande invited the commanders to visit Port Loko, in order to verify that seven rebel commanders whom the RUF High Command alleged had been captured and harassed by the CDF had actually been disarmed. Kallon, Mansaray and Kodjo accepted the invitation and accompanied Opande to Rogberi Junction and to Port Loko, the spokesperson said. Opande promised that humanitarian assistance to Lunsar would start soon. He also noted that the British presence in the country was a bilateral arrangement between the governments of Sierra Leone and Britain.

An ECOWAS force comprising 1,696 West African troops from Nigeria, Mali, Senegal and Niger will be deployed along Guinea's borders with Liberia and Sierra Leone within a month, a UNAMSIL spokesperson said on Monday. Military chiefs from the four troop-contributing countries decided late last week that an advance team would be sent before the end of January to the troubled region, where recent fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees. The military chiefs also decided that the troop-contributing nations, with the exception of Niger, would be responsible for funding their own contingents for the first 90 days of deployment. After that, ECOWAS would take responsibility for the troops. In addition, a Special Representative of the ECOWAS Executive Secretary will soon be named. Prior to the deployment, a Status of Forces Agreement will be signed between ECOWAS and the three countries to host the troops, and a Memorandum of Understanding will be signed between ECOWAS and the troop-contributing nations. According to a communiqué issued in Abuja after the meeting, Nigeria will contribute 776 troops to the force, while Mali will send 500 soldiers, Senegal 220 and Niger 200.

A spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) confirmed Monday that new fighting in southeastern Guinea had forced U.N. agencies to suspend food aid and other distributions to hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees in the Gueckedou area. "Apparently there's a large-scale military operation going on," UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler told the Reuters news agency. "Because of that we've had to temporarily suspend humanitarian activity that we only resumed a week ago in the so-called 'parrot's beak' region. This means that 200,000 refugees are once more out of our reach." Meanwhile, the BBC spoke of rebel attacks and a Guinean army counter-offensive at Gueckedou over the weekend. "Aid workers said they saw the severed heads of suspected rebels displayed on stakes around the town," the radio said, adding that the workers were withdrawn to Kissidougou. BBC West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle was quoted as calling the plight of the refugees a "catastrophe." He said that the insurgents appeared to be a combination of Guinean dissidents and mercenaries recruited in Sierra Leone.

The Sierra Leone government has reacted cautiously to a Liberian foreign ministry statement last week that the Liberian government now intended to pursue "a new policy of disengagement" toward the RUF. "We have to take President Taylor by what he says, we take him by his word and will wait and see," presidential spokesman Septimus Kaikai told the Reuters news agency. "If you go by what the U.N. report says about Liberian support for the rebels, then if that support stops, it could go a long way to cutting off arms for the rebels and ending this terrible war."

UNAMSIL's troop strength, including 243 military observers, currently stands at 10,458, a UNAMSIL spokesperson said on Monday. The U.N. force's maximum authorised strength is 13,000.

14 January: A new series of attacks in southeastern Guinea has forced the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to put on hold plans to assist more than a quarter of a million stranded Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees and displaced Guineans, the agency announced on Saturday. The UNHCR decision came only a day after the agency said it hoped to take advantage of a lull in the fighting to assist previously inaccessible refugees in the so-called "parrot's beak" area. UNHCR field staff and relief staff have been withdrawn to the town of Kissidougou. According to BBC Conakry correspondent Alhassan Sylla, insurgents launched an attack near Gueckedou in the early hours of Saturday, killing five vigilante youths and a customs official. A second attack was reported some 25 kilometres from the town. Further south, toward the town of Macenta, attackers killed one Guinean soldier and wounded two others, Sylla said. Reinforcements from a nearby military garrison reportedly drove back the attackers. Tensions have increased in the area in recent days in advance of the expected deployment of over 1,600 ECOWAS troops. Radio France International reported Saturday that thousands of Guinean youths were joining the army and converging on Kissidougou, while in Monrovia, Liberian Defence Minister Daniel Chea said troops were being sent to Nimba County's border with Guinea to prevent any new incursion by Liberian dissidents. 

Former RUF field commander Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie is still in Liberia despite the announcement of his departure Friday by Liberia's foreign ministry, the BBC reported. Bockarie announced a week ago his intention of leaving Liberia, where he has lived in exile since falling out with RUF leader Foday Sankoh in December 1999, and of rejoining the rebel movement. In a hand-delivered January 6 press statement, Bockarie called on Liberian religious and civil society groups which had been demanding his expulsion to escort him to the country's border with Sierra Leone. But on Sunday, the former rebel commander insisted that the Liberian government had not asked him to leave, and that his requests for groups to facilitate his departure had not been met. "I am still awaiting their response to see me off so that it is not misconstrued that I left Liberia equipped to make war in Sierra Leone," he told BBC Monrovia correspondent Jonathan Paye-Layleh.

UNAMSIL troops drove from Bo to the village of Monghere on Saturday, a day after the RUF announced the reopening of the Bo - Makeni road, BBC correspondent Richard Margao reported on Sunday. According to the UNAMSIL public relations officer in Bo, the most serious obstacles to travel was the bad condition of bridges and culverts along the road. He said villagers along the road told the U.N. troops the road was safe as far as Yele, but that travel beyond that town would be risky. Yele is under government control, but is only six miles from an RUF base, Margao noted. "Local reports say numerous bypass roads linking Masingbi on the Matotoka - Kono highway and the provincial headquarters towns of Bo and Kenema have been obstructed by the rebels," Margao said. "Deep trenches have been dug along the highway and most of the main bridges have been destroyed. Huge trees have been felled and put across the two highways, which has made it impossible for non-governmental organisations to carry out relief operations. In addition, the sides of the roads have become heavily forested and locals believe RUF rebels use the cover to wait to ambush unfamiliar vehicles."

13 January: Over 100 British troops from the 2nd Squadron, Royal Air Force Regiment parachuted into Lungi International Airport on Saturday, the BBC reported. According to a statement by the Joint Task Force, the exercise was to be conducted alongside UNAMSIL troops stationed at the airport, and was designed to demonstrate Britain's ability to deploy its U.K.-based rapid-reaction force in support of United Nations peacekeeping operations. The parachute exercise was followed by a fire power demonstration by the British frigate HMS Iron Duke, which is currently patrolling off the Sierra Leonean coast. BBC Freetown correspondent Lansana Fofana said the military exercises were conducted in the presence of President Kabbah, members of his cabinet, and diplomats.

A British aid official visiting Kissidougou said Saturday that the plight of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees in the border area was "potentially a very serious humanitarian disaster." Richard Platt, from U.K. Christian Relief and Tearfund, noted that people were living in fear of their lives, and that for the past two months aid agencies had been unable to assist them because of the security situation. "They're not starving but they are very hungry," Platt said. "The rebels have been coming across the border attacking and burning camps. The threat is there and people are very frightened. The rebels are not just attacking the camps but also local towns so a lot of Guineans have also been displaced. There are also reports of atrocities being committed by the rebels. A lot of people now want to be repatriated in a different part of Sierra Leone." Platt said he came across 4,000 to 5,000 Sierra Leoneans Friday who had fled from a refugee camp. He said they were hungry, frightened, and desperate to be sent home. A UNHCR spokesperson, Lyndall Sachs, said the agency was very concerned about the ongoing violence in Guinea, which had forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee for their lives. "The ongoing insecurity for both refugees and aid workers is having a serious affect on our ability to help these people," she said. "The situation appears to have calmed slightly but is still very fluid." 

12 January: The Liberian government, under pressure from both the international community and from domestic religious and civil society groups, said Friday it would not support Sierra Leone's RUF rebels. A Liberian foreign ministry statement issued in Monrovia did not refer to accusations, made most recently by a U.N.-appointed panel of experts investigating diamond smuggling and arms trafficking in Sierra Leone, of Liberian backing for the rebel group. "Following the recent review of its policy relating to Sierra Leone, the government announces a new policy of disengagement," the statement said. "The government will not in any way support activities of the Revolutionary United Front and calls on the RUF to lay down its arms." The foreign ministry also announced the departure of former RUF battlefield commander Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie, who has lived in exile in Liberia since his break with imprisoned RUF leader Foday Sankoh in December 1999. The statement did not indicate where Bockarie would go. But in a Voice of America interview broadcast on Friday, Bockarie (pictured left) repeated his intention, first made in a press release last weekend, of returning to Sierra Leone to rejoin the RUF. The former field commander, who resigned from the rebel group a year ago, rejected as "a mockery" a statement by RUF spokesman Gibril Massaquoi that he would have to apply for readmission. "I’m not afraid. I’m a trained commander," he said. "Whosoever is in there knows my soul. I believe I can get back. I’m not a single man. I’m not going as a single man. I have men that came along with me and I’m going to leave with all my men. So when I’m getting back, I mean, whatsoever may derail my getting to Sierra Leone, I’ll have to make it possible to get back." Asked whether he was optimistic peace could be achieved in Sierra Leone, Bockarie said the war was far from over and he accused the international community of not being sincere about restoring peace in the country. "They appeared bringing more arms and ammunition to fight and flush the RUF, even though there’s a peace agreement, because they are saying they have to get control over Kono," he said. "But the way for me that I know that I left Kono, the deployment that I left on the ground, I don’t think they will ever succeed in getting Kono. They can fight in the air on the ground; they will not succeed easily. There’s going to be another tug-of-war for them to take Kono for that sort of mining to exist there, it’s not going to be possible easily. Though I’m not there, but I know there are men on the ground."

Mineral Resources Minister Mohamed Swarray Deen said Friday that security forces had been ordered to arrest any diamond dealers suspected of buying diamonds from the RUF. "The government has ordered the police and Sierra Leone Army recently deployed in arrest Sierra Leonean and foreign diamond dealers who travel into RUF-controlled areas to buy conflict diamonds," Mohamed Deen told Reuters. The action follows a New York Times report earlier this month which concluded that diamond buyers in Kenema were purchasing gemstones from the rebels, and that in practice there was no way to determine the origin of the stones. "Any licensed diamond dealer caught selling conflict diamonds to export companies or any of those companies found buying conflict diamonds will be prosecuted and, if found guilty, will have their license confiscated," Deen said. He added that security forces would also arrest any rebels found travelling from RUF-held areas to sell gemstones. Deen said international efforts to curb the sale of conflict diamonds had met with success, and that the legitimate sale of diamonds through licensed exporters had increased, from $1.5 million in 1999 to $10.07 million in 2000.

About 38,000 Sierra Leoneans have returned from Guinea since fighting broke out in that country in September, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said on Friday. In a statement issued from its regional office in Abidjan, the WFP said most of the returnees were staying with relatives in Freetown or at camps in the Western Area. "The most fortunate, around 16,000, have been relocated in Lungi, where they have just received the equivalent of one month's food from the WFP," the statement said. The agency also said it had reopened its office in the Guinean town of Kissidougou, which was attacked by insurgents in December. It said thousands of refugees and displaced Guineans were beginning to emerge from the forest "starving and in a pitiful state." 

The RUF has agreed to open the Kenema - Tongo road within the next three days, the BBC reported on Friday. The RUF commander in the area, Colonel K.S. (Kailondo Sama) Banya, also agreed to allow UNAMSIL to deploy in the town and for humanitarian organisations to begin operations. 

United Nations has been slow to deploy in RUF-held areas because of a lack of troops, UNAMSIL force commander Lieutenant-General Daniel Opande told journalists on Friday. "We have lost a good number of troops who have gone back home," he said. "We have received only two battalions from Bangladesh whilst the Indians had more than three battalions and equally the Jordanians. In fact, we are exactly half the strength that is required for us to carry out our mandate." Opande said both sides were continuing to observe the ceasefire agreed to in Abuja in November, but that the RUF had so far not returned weapons they had seized from U.N. peacekeepers in May. "Although the RUF returned some of the APCs (armoured personnel carriers), all of them were vandalised and are unserviceable," he said. "The RUF has not returned any of the weapons but we will continue to demand the return of all UNAMSIL's weapons. Opande said the RUF had pledged to reopen roads into rebel-held areas. "Generally, Mile 91 - Magburaka, Kenema - Daru and the Lunsar - Makeni road have been opened," he said. "We have gone on these roads to verify the free movement of civilian traffic. The RUF has also indicated that they will open other roads, which will include Daru - Kailahun road, Makeni - Kabala and Bumbuna, Rogberi - Lunsar road and up to Mange Bridge. The Mange Bridge requires some repairs to make it roadworthy."

Military chiefs from Nigeria, Mali, Senegal and Niger began a two-day meeting in Abuja on Friday to discuss deployment of an ECOWAS force along Guinea's borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia. Fighting in the area has displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees since insurgents began launching cross-border attacks last September. Malian President Alpha Oumar Konare, the current ECOWAS chairman, told the representatives of the four troop-contributing countries that the force would be mandated to stop the incursions. "The proposed forces are not going to be observers," he said. "They will ensure that they deal decisively with any form of incursion because they are an intervention force." He added that a key objective of the mission was to "support democracy and ensure peace and stability." The ECOWAS Defence and Security Council mandated last month that the force would protect borders, facilitate the free movement of persons and safeguard humanitarian operations. The military chiefs are expected to work out a detailed budged for the deployment of the troops, and to compile lists of needed equipment, which will be submitted to Western donor nations. According to Reuters, they will also decide how many troops will come from each of the four countries. The BBC reported last week that the force would be comprised of 770 soldiers from Nigeria, 500 from Mali, and 200 each from Niger and Senegal. ECOWAS Executive Secretary Lansana Kouyate, interviewed in Bamako last week by the BBC, said the four countries would be responsible for funding the first three months of the proposed six-month peacekeeping operation, but that other ECOWAS nations would be called on to contribute as well. The second half of the operation would likely be funded by Western donor nations, he said.

Sierra Leone's Minister of Health and Sanitation, Dr. Ibrahim I. Tejan-Jalloh, officially inaugurated a five-kilometre water pipeline Friday which was built by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to provide safe water to the Kenema District Hospital. According to a statement by the ICRC, any surplus water will be fed into the city's water system. The minister also opened a 48-bed ward for surgical patients and a physiotherapy department constructed by the ICRC which, the agency said, would significantly improve the hospital's ability to care for patients. 

Humanitarian workers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are gearing up to resume aid deliveries to refugees stranded in Guinea's so-called "parrots beak," which borders neighbouring Sierra Leone and Liberia, the agency said on Friday. The area has been virtually cut off from the rest of the country since fighting forced aid agencies to withdraw in late November. The UNHCR said it had recovered a significant quantity of relief supplies believed lost in a December rebel attack on Gueckedou. More than 40,000 blankets, 23,500 plastic tarpaulins, 15,700 jerricans, soap, and 4,700 mats were recovered and will be sent to refugee camps in the border areas. The recovery of the supplies has allowed the agency to cancel one of the two relief flights which had been planned for next week. Elsewhere in Guinea, the UNHCR is identifying new groups of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees and displaced Guineans stranded by the fighting. At Nzerekore, near the border with Liberia, the agency located some 1,100 refugees who had fled camps at Massadou and Macenta, along with about 5,000 displaced Guineans. At the Kouankan camp southeast of Macenta, UNHCR workers found 3,500 refugees who had fled from other areas, increasing the camp's population to 14,500. In Conakry, some 3,300 refugees are staying in a transit centre built for 3,000, awaiting repatriation to Sierra Leone. A second transit centre which can hold up to 5,000 persons is now building planned for Matoto, outside of Conakry, the UNHCR said. Upon arrival in Freetown, the returnees are taken to transit centres in Waterloo and Jui. UNHCR and local officials are seeking government-controlled areas where the returnees can be accommodated, because most come from rebel-controlled regions of the country and are unable to return home.

The United Nations Security Council's Sierra Leone Sanctions Committee has cleared the report of a panel of experts investigating the link between illicit diamonds smuggling and arms trafficking in Sierra Leone, a U.N. spokesman said on Friday. The Council is expected to hold a formal meeting to discuss the report on January 25. Meanwhile, Ukraine said Friday its Acting Ambassador to the United Nations, Valery Kuchinsky, has reportedly told the Security Council his country would cooperate with the panel. The panel last month noted that Ukraine had sent a shipment of arms Burkina Faso, using a Burkinabe end-user certificate. Those arms, the panel said, were then shipped to Liberia, in violation of U.N. sanctions, and were diverted for use by Sierra Leone's RUF rebels. According to a statement issued by Ukraine's foreign ministry, Kuchinsky insisted that his country was in compliance with national legislation and international legal norms on arms sales. He also claimed to have produced "irrefutable evidence" to show that the panel's allegations of Ukrainian sanctions violations were baseless. 

Exchange rates for the leone against the U.S. dollar and pound sterling, posted in Freetown on Friday: [Buying / Selling] Standard Chartered Bank: [$] 1500 / 1725 [£] 2220 / 2570 Commercial Bank: [$] 1450 / 1700. [£] 2150 / 2450 Frandia: [$] 1800 / 2250 [£] 2400 / 3050. Continental: [$] 1900 / 2100 [£] 2150 / 2450. Paradise: [$] 1800 / 2100 [£] 2400 / 2850.

10 January: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has nominated United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata to co-chair —  with Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen —  a United Nations commission which will set policies to deal with global human security issues such as poverty, human rights, diseases, environmental pollution, terrorism and cross-border crimes. Japan has pledged $180 million to fund a United Nations human security project. According to Japan's Kyodo news agency, Japan has been consulting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the membership of the international human security commission, which is expected to consist of about ten members. Ogata, who is accompanying Mori on the first-ever visit to Africa by an incumbent Japanese leader, said the refugee situation in West Africa, including that in Sierra Leone, was the worst she had ever seen, and she urged Japanese legislators and cabinet ministers to take an active interest in the region. 

U.S. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger told a White House Diamond Conference Wednesday that the trade in "conflict diamonds" —  gems mined illicitly by rebel groups to fund conflicts in Africa —  is a national security issue because it has brought instability to the continent. "Conflict diamonds are fueling instability in Angola and Sierra Leone and escalating the fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo," Berger said. "They are undermining human rights because the groups that profit from this illicit trade are responsible for the most violent atrocities we have seen and the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent people...Diamonds are of inherent beauty, but today trade in diamonds by insurgent groups in Africa presents an ugly threat to that continent's security and is forcing all of us to rethink the economies of war." The conference, which was organised by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is looking at ways to identify where rough diamonds were mined. Berger also called for a new certification system to certify the origin of diamonds to be expanded. "The international community needs to develop a certification regime that will work right now," Berger said. "Not one that is perfect, but one which will significantly raise the cost of trading in conflict diamonds." Berger added that the United States was "determined to fight" the problem of conflict diamonds. "It's also a problem that we have a moral obligation to fight, because we in the developed world are the leading consumers of diamonds," he said.

A new coach for Sierra Leone's national football team, the Leone Stars, is expected to be named in the next couple of days, the BBC reported. Eight local coaches were set to be interviewed for the position on Wednesday. 

9 January: Members of the United Nations Security Council called Tuesday on all member states to refrain from "any act that might contribute to a further destabilisation of the situation on the borders between Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone." In a statement read out by Council President Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore, Council members expressed concern over the "continued attacks by the RUF on the border with Guinea," and called for the the early implementation of the Abuja ceasefire agreement. The statement also reiterated a call for all U.N. member states —  and particularly Liberia —  to refrain from providing military support to the rebels carrying out the attacks. Earlier, the Council was briefed on recent contacts between the RUF and UNAMSIL by U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guéhenno and by the new U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers (pictured left). In a separate press release following Lubbers' presentation, Council members said they shared his "deep concern" over plight of refugees in the region and expressed their full support for his efforts on their behalf. At a press conference following the closed-door meeting, Lubbers said his main message to the Council had been "a plea for assistance."  "In the border area, the initiative of ECOWAS is key," he said. "But UNHCR's impression is that it will not be implemented only by the will of this regional institution. They need support in terms of money and logistics to make it effective."

RUF spokesman Gibril Massaquoi has dismissed as "arrant nonsense" a claim made at the weekend by former RUF field commander Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie that the rebel organisation was suffering from what he called "a leadership crisis and vacuum."  "There is no leadership crisis. There is no vacuum," Massaquoi told the BBC. "He knows that General Issa Sesay is in the interim. So we don’t even understand what he is saying." Bockarie went into exile in Liberia in December 1999 after a public break with RUF leader Foday Sankoh. But on Saturday, he insisted he was still popular with RUF forces on the ground, and expressed a desire to rejoin the rebel movement. Massaquoi,  however, said readmission to the RUF would not be automatic. "If he reapplies as a new coming member into the RUF, it is left with the RUF leadership and the RUF family to decide what will happen to him," he said. "But as of now we feel he resigned, he wrote a letter of resignation, not under duress at all." Massaquoi also dismissed Bockarie's claim that he was popular with the RUF rank-and-file. "If he was popular you need to ask him why did he leave," Massaquoi said. "Why did he leave the RUF? He is not popular. He’s not popular at all. He was commanding the RUF as instructed by the leadership, by Foday Sankoh. If he misbehaved to the leadership, he insulted him and the entire RUF says he should apologise, and he said no, he wrote a letter of resignation and went to Liberia. I don’t think what he’s saying over there is correct." The RUF spokesman denied that they were trying to rid themselves of the former field commander. "We are trying to say that the RUF is guided by rules and regulations, and unless and until you fulfill these rules before he could be retaken again into the RUF society," Massaquoi said. "He knows what he did, and every one of us knows."

More than 1,000 Sierra Leonean refugees have arrived in Conakry since Saturday in the hope of returning to Freetown by sea, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Tuesday. Fighting in the border areas where many of the refugee camps are located, combined with a growing hostility by the local Guinean population towards the refugees, has fueled their desire to return home, the agency said in a statement. Meanwhile, the UNHCR said it was sending an emergency team to Guinea's volatile "parrot’s beak" area along the country's borders with Liberia and Sierra Leone, where it is thought some 180,000 refugees and 70,000 internally-displaced Guineans could be in urgent need of food and medical supplies. The situation in the area, which UNHCR security officials visited briefly last week, is believed to be much worse than in other areas of Guinea, as no assistance has reached there since early December. Meanwhile, refugees who fled the December 6 rebel attack in the Gueckedou area continue to arrive at existing refugee camps further from the border, the agency said. The Nyaedou Camp north of Gueckedou, which previously held 15,000 refugees, now has a population of 20,000. After a few days in the camps, the UNHCR said, most of the new arrivals as well as some of the old inhabitants are leaving for Conakry in hope of returning to Freetown by boat. The malnutrition rate at the Massakoundou and Nyaedou camps, both of which have increased in size by 50 percent, is reported to be between 12-15 percent among children under the age of five. In Freetown, the UNHCR will start providing "resettlement packages" containing kitchen sets, tarpaulins, jerrycans, soap, lanterns, blankets and mats to returnees going to government-controlled areas. The agency will also add five protection/field officers to its Sierra Leone staff, to allow it to better monitor the return and reintegration of the refugees.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has taken over the task of repatriating Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) effective Tuesday, the organisation said in a press statement. The group has taken over operation of the vessel MV Overbeck, which has a capacity of 350 passengers, and plans to make four round-trips between Conakry and Freetown each week. Currently, there are some 3,500 refugees at a transit centre in the Guinean capital awaiting transportation home. Initially, the group said, it planned to assist in the voluntary return of about 20,000 refugees. The IOM has opened field offices in Conakry and Freetown and launched an appeal for $2.2 million in funding. So far it has received $675,000 from donor governments, the statement said. The IOM said it was working closely in the repatriation effort with the UNHCR, with the International Medical Corps (IMC), Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) who are providing medical care for the returnees, and with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ), which provides transportation for the refugees in Conakry and Freetown.

8 January: The United Nations peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone has continued to initiate low-level contacts with the RUF, a UNAMSIL spokesperson said in Freetown on Monday. On Sunday, members of UNAMSIL's Ghanaian battalion met with local RUF commanders at Dambu in the presence of civilians, local CDF members, non-governmental organisations, and area traders. Representing the RUF were Colonel Amara, Colonel Rambo, Colonel Abu Sesay and the RUF commander at Kuiva, Lieutenant-Colonel Basiru.. The RUF representatives indicated they had been authorised by their High Command to reopen the Daru-Kailahun road, the spokesperson said. On Friday, Nigerian peacekeepers and U.N. military observers met with RUF fighters at Masiembu, one mile south of the Mange Bridge in Kambia District. On Thursday, the commanding officer and senior members of UNAMSIL's Bangladeshi battalion met with a 12-member RUF delegation at Mile 91. Present for the meeting were RUF Colonel Base Marine, area paramount chiefs, the director of OPARD, and district officers. The commanding officers of the Sierra Leone Army 9th Battalion also attended the meeting.

UNAMSIL military observers at Lungi have reported that 48 civilians from Kasirie and Kychom in Kambia District had arrived at Barlow Wharf on Friday. They reported that their villages were shelled by Guinean troops on Thursday evening, and that the villages had been burnt down.

Investigation into 26 suspected Liberian mercenaries arrested in Freetown last week as they attempted to board a ferry to Conakry is continuing, a UNAMSIL spokesperson said on Monday. The spokesperson said the 26 had been apprehended by UNAMSIL troops and turned over to the Sierra Leone Police in the presence of the commanding officer of the Nigerian battalion, NIBATT-6. According to BBC Freetown correspondent Lansana Fofana, the 26 had been fighting alongside the Kamajor militia, but when they were not paid decided to seek employment fighting insurgents in  Guinea. BBC West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle quoted a police source as saying the Liberians had fallen out with the Kamajors over a payment matter, but that at least one Kamajor official signed for them, getting them temporarily out of police custody. The Liberians were re-arrested, the source said, when police learned they were headed for Conakry.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan commented Monday on the role of illicit diamond trading in fueling conflicts in Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. "I think there are war profiteers who are not interested in peace, who fund these wars for their own financial and commercial interest," he said. "The international community has to find a way of getting to the bottom of this and breaking the cycle."

830 million people around the globe are expected to be afflicted by hunger this year as the result of conflict and drought, United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director Catherine Bertini told reporters on Monday. Bertini noted that one out of every three persons in many African countries lacked sufficient food, making it the worst-hit region. She called for the international community to recommit itself  to preventing starvation throughout the world, and warned that donations to the WFP and other relief agencies had fallen short of actual needs. "We can't run away from these problems," she said. "One way or another, they have a way of showing up on our doorstep through television, mass emigration, the spread of disease and environmental degradation. Responding to these problems is not just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing." Those countries experiencing the most critical food shortages include Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Angola, Burundi, Guinea and Somalia. In addition millions of drought-affected people live in Tajikistan, Pakistan, Iran, Armenia and Georgia as well as in Afghanistan, North Korea, Mongolia, Cambodia and Bangladesh, Bertini said.

7 January: A three-member Italian television crew has returned to Freetown after five days in rebel-held territory, where they interviewed RUF interim leader General Issa Sesay, the Voice of America reported on Sunday. According to one of the journalists, Sesay acknowledged responsibility for his part in atrocities committed by the rebel group, and asked his country for forgiveness. Sesay told the journalists he wanted to help the atrocity victims, especially the amputees, to have a new life, "because he knows that to amputate a person is so to kill a person," the journalist said. Sesay said he would demobilise all child combatants and, when asked to demonstrate his commitment, he turned three child soldiers over to the television team. The three boys were taken to Freetown and placed with the Catholic relief agency, CARITAS. The journalist quoted the rebels as saying they were tired of ten years of war, and now wanted peace. "I want to hope that all the things we saw and those of the things we hear from their mouth are really the truth," he said.

The 1,676 West African troops to be deployed along Guinea's borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia will have a mandate to intervene militarily to put a stop to all cross-border incursions, and to protect civilians, refugees and humanitarian agencies in the border areas, ECOWAS Executive-Secretary Lansana Kouyate (pictured left) told the BBC following talks in Bamako with Malian President Alpha Oumar Konare, the current chairman of ECOWAS. The force will be made up of some 770 soldiers from Nigeria, 500 from Mali, and 200 each from Niger and Senegal, BBC correspondent Joan Baxter reported. Military chiefs from the four contributing countries are due to meet in Abuja on Friday to work out a detailed budged for the deployment of the troops, and to compile lists of needed equipment, which will be submitted to Western donor nations. Kouyate said the four countries would be responsible for funding the first three months of the planned six-month peacekeeping operation, but that other ECOWAS nations would be expected to contribute. "Donor countries such as Great Britain, France, the United States, the Netherlands and Sweden, which have expressed their willingness to support the ECOWAS operation, are expected to finance the second half of the peacekeeping operation," Baxter said.

An emergency team sent by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to Guinea's troubled Gueckedou region this week said Saturday it was able to provide medical supplies to refugees. The UNHCR said that although medical stockpiles in the town had been looted, the team found one emergency store of medicine intact and was able to distribute it to the refugees. But it said the agency was missing medical kits for the treatment of cholera and malaria, and that it would take weeks to replace what was looted. The team said the UNHCR should be able to resume limited assistance to some 250,000 displaced persons in the area, including Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees and Guinean residents forced to flee their homes due to fighting in the area. The refugees told the team they were forced to forage for food after running out of relief supplies they received last September. But the UNHCR team concluded that it was still too insecure to reopen the UNHCR office in Gueckedou, and that if relief workers were to work in the area they would have to do so by making eight-hour day trips under military escort.

Belgium's High Diamond Council has hailed a new system to certify the origin of diamonds a success, the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported on Sunday. High Diamond Council Director-General Peter Meeus was quoted as saying he was pleased that the United Nations had responded positively to new procedures put in place by Belgium to curb the trade in "conflict diamonds." But a report by the New York Times last week cast doubt on whether the new regulations would be effective in preventing diamonds mined by rebels from entering the market. After interviewing a number of diamond dealers in Kenema, the Times concluded that in practice there was no way of knowing the origin of the stones —  and that the dealers were making few efforts to find out. "Interviews here make clear how difficult, if not impossible, it will be to stanch the smuggling of diamonds: the authorities do not have the resources to prevent smuggling, nor have they ever shown the will to reform a corrupt system that has enriched successive governments," Times reporter Norimitsu Onishi wrote.

6 January: Guinean air force planes bombed villages in Kambia District on Saturday in reprisal for cross-border attacks by insurgents based in Sierra Leone, Reuters reported, quoting residents fleeing the area. The bombardment reportedly began on Thursday and has been centered on towns along the border area, Reuters said.

President Kabbah proposed Saturday that January 6 be declared as "Dedication Day" —  a day set aside, he said, for national reflection and re-dedication. Kabbah was speaking at an ecumenical service at the National Stadium in Freetown on the second anniversary of the rebel invasion of the capital, which resulted in the destruction of much of the eastern part of the city and the death of over six thousand persons. Kabbah said the main objective of "Dedication Day" would be to "remember and honour all those have given their lives in defence of this country and its people in all the armed conflicts we have experienced; to celebrate our triumphs over adversity; to remind ourselves that the events of the sixth should never happen again, and to re-dedicate ourselves to a culture of peace and mutual respect."

UNAMSIL force commander Lieutenant-General Daniel Opande, who met this week with RUF leaders at Magburaka, said Saturday the rebels had still not fulfilled promises to return weapons seized from U.N. peacekeepers last May. "We have not been given any weapons at all, and we told the leadership of RUF categorically that time is not on their side, and they must deliver as per the agreement," Opande told the BBC. "They must deliver the weapons and the other items that they had taken earlier on. It is their responsibility to ensure that they deliver on the agreement, the Abuja peace accord. And we made it quite categorically to them that time is not on their side. And unless they live to the agreement, nobody’s going to trust them any more." Opande said UNAMSIL had plans to deploy in rebel-held areas of the country, but he refused to elaborate. "And as and when our plans are firmed up, the whole world will know when we are moving," he said. "We don’t have any specific time frame, and when we have that specific time frame we will publicly announce it." Opande said Wednesday's meeting was useful in that "we are able to continue talking to the leadership of RUF, and follow up on the promises that they have given in the past, and to underline the importance of them ensuring that they deliver" on the undertakings they agreed to in the now-expired Abuja ceasefire agreement. He sidestepped, however, a question on whether he trusted the RUF to live up to its obligations. "As I have always said, a peacekeeper will always talk to all the parties to the concern," he said. "It is not a matter of trusting. A peacekeeper will go out there and talk to whoever he is supposed to talk to. And if it is a matter of trust, it is a different thing altogether. And trust can only be followed by when you see the individual delivering on the agreements or what he says he’s going to do."

Former RUF field commander Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie said Saturday he is prepared to leave Liberia, where he has lived in exile since falling out with RUF leader Foday Sankoh more than a year ago. In a December 1999 meeting at Roberts International Airport, Liberian President Charles Taylor and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo ordered Bockarie on behalf of ECOWAS to remain in exile until after the disarmament process in Sierra Leone was complete, and elections had been held. But in a press statement which he hand-delivered to news organisations in Monrovia, Bockarie said he intends to rejoin the RUF. The former field commander maintained that he is still popular with the RUF forces on the ground, and that his return would help to solve what he called "the present leadership crisis and vacuum within the RUF." In an interview with BBC Monrovia correspondent Jonathan Paye-Layleh, Bockarie denied he was under pressure to leave by those who would like to see a further deterioration in the situation in Sierra Leone. "I joined (the RUF) of my own free will, and nobody can tell me what to do," he said. Bockarie insisted his return would not derail the peace and disarmament process because, he said, he still commands a level of respect from the RUF forces. When asked whether his return might lead to a confrontation with RUF commanders in the field, Bockarie replied: "I don’t think so, but if anything happens, then that’s what God wants."

OAU Secretary-General Salim Ahmed Salim visited the Guinean town of Gueckedou on Saturday, where recent attacks by insurgents have killed hundreds and displaced  hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees and their Guinean hosts. BBC correspondent Alhassan Sylla described burnt-out homes and widespread destruction in the town. "It’s a sorry state of affairs," he said. "We’re told that normally this particular town holds over 80,000 inhabitants, but we’re told reliably that we have only one third of the population there. Most of them are found in the centre of town. In the outskirts there are virtually no people living there. Basically everybody has fled from the town in panic, because when the rebels struck last time round, they did promise that they would come back again." One parliamentarian from the region told Salim that tens of thousands of people were still in the bush, fearful of returning to the town, and he appealed to the OAU secretary-general to take Guinea's case to the international community to see how the problem could be resolved. Sylla observed that security in the area between Kissidougou and Gueckedou appeared to have been stepped up. "We saw lots of security men across the road with barriers, checkpoints, some manned by vigilantes, others by soldiers," he said. "So yes indeed, I can say that it is swarming with soldiers of all sorts now, and in fact they’re preparing for any other eventuality." 

5 January: The Speaker of Parliament and former Chief Justice of Sierra Leone, Sheku M. F. Kutubu, died early Thursday morning at Choithram Hospital in Freetown of an apparent heart attack. Kutubu's death was confirmed by Friday by presidential spokesman Septimus Kaikai. "I went to him yesterday, he was okay, we discussed lengthily, and I left him around 8:00 pm. I was called this morning that he died of cardiac arrest. It was a terrible shock to me," Kaikai told the Concord Times. He added that funeral arrangements were still pending. "He was a senior member of the government," Kaikai said. "He will be given a civic funeral, or the parliamentarians will have to give him a state funeral. Arrangement is still going on."

Guinean President Lansana Conte has sacked his defence minister, Dorank Assifat Diasseny, even as his country struggles to come to grips with a series of cross-border attacks into Guinean territory from neighbouring countries, which have displaced hundreds of thousands of Guinean residents and refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia. No successor to Diasseny was named. BBC Conakry correspondent Alhassan Sylla quoted Diasseny as claiming Tuesday that the Guinean army had the capability, the capacity, the men and the determination to defeat rebel forces occupying Guinean territory. But Sylla acknowledged that the Guinean military often had difficulty differentiating between insurgents and refugees. "(That is) why a lot of refugees have been killed in the process," Sylla said. "Even aid workers have been admitting that the Guinean army does not take that much patience in seizing who the refugees, or who the enemy is. Most times they’ve just gone headlong and say they are finding the enemy. In the process, a lot of these refugees —  call them innocent people —  have been killed."

Guinean President Lansana Conte accused Liberian President Charles Taylor of Liberia and President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso of supporting recent armed incursions into Guinean territory from Liberia and Sierra Leone. Speaking on state radio and television, Conte (pictured left) alleged that the two leaders, and others whom he did not name, were attracted by Guinea's mineral wealth. "There is a syndicate of African leaders who are at the base of these rebel attacks along our borders," Conte said. He denied harbouring Liberian rebels, whom Taylor has accused of launching attacks into Liberia's northern Lofa County. "For the time being they are only refugees," he said. "If there are people among them who do not like Mr. Taylor, that is not my fault. Let him take them back. They are Liberians." Conte's charges coincided with a visit to the country by OAU Secretary-General Salim Ahmed Salim, who is seeking ways to calm the situation in the border area. Salim is expected to visit some of the refugees in the affected areas before departing from Guinea on Sunday.

700 of the 1,676 "ECOWAS Armed Troops" to be deployed along Guinea's borders with Liberia and Sierra Leone will be from Nigeria, Nigerian Defence Spokesman Brigadier-General Godwin Ugbo said on Friday. The rest of the force will be drawn from Niger, Mali and Senegal.

Liberia's defence headquarters has agreed to the deployment of more than 1,600 ECOWAS troops to monitor the country's borders with Guinea and Sierra Leone, BBC Monrovia correspondent Jonathan Paye-Layleh reported on Friday. In a press conference late Thursday following a meeting with visiting OAU Secretary-General Salim Ahmed Salim, Liberian Army Chief Lieutenant-General Kpingba Wa Kona said he saw signs of sincerity on the part of his counterparts who attended an ECOWAS meeting to work out details of the deployment. But whether or not they were sincere, he said, "if we need peace and security we have to agree." Kona insisted, however, that before the ECOWAS troops could be deployed, a status of forces agreement would have to be signed to safeguard the operation. The general said arrangements were being made to pull back Liberian forces from the border area once the West African troops were in place. "This is part of the agreement," he said. "We will pull back and let the force take over the border."

The United Nations Security Council was given a closed-door briefing Friday on the report by a panel of experts which investigated the link between diamond smuggling and illicit arms trafficking in Sierra Leone. In a veiled reference to Liberia, Council President Singapore Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore read out a statement pointing out that U.N. member states had "a binding obligation to implement and enforce the measures imposed" by the Council in July when it imposed a global ban on the sale of Sierra Leonean diamonds unaccompanied by a certificate of authenticity from the Sierra Leone government. The statement also stressed "the importance of countries, through whose territory illicit diamonds might pass, taking the necessary steps" to implement the resolution. In a letter to the Security Council, Liberian Foreign Minister Monie Captan asked that his country be invited to discussions on "some grave allegations" against Liberia included in the panel's report. He said Liberia would present its own proposals for the Council's consideration, but did not elaborate.

4 January: UNAMSIL force commander Lieutenant-General Daniel Opande (pictured right) met in Magburaka Wednesday with RUF interim leader General Issa Sesay and other RUF officials, the Associated Press reported on Thursday. Opande was quoted as describing the meeting as "a great leap forward towards the peace process." A UNAMSIL spokesperson said the two sides discussed prospects for deploying U.N. peacekeepers in rebel-held areas of the country. Opande also urged the RUF to withdraw from conflicts in Guinea and Liberia. "The U.N. is trying to get the RUF to see reason, so that their fighters are not used as mercenaries by these two neighbouring countries," UNAMSIL spokeswoman Hirut Befecadu told reporters. She added that the RUF had agreed to open three major roads leading to areas under rebel control: the Bumbuna-Magburaka road, the Kabala-Makeni road, and the road from Kambia-Mange-Port Loko Axis. The U.N. and the RUF will form a contact group to work towards the implementation of the ceasefire agreement, Befecadu said.

More than 20 persons were arrested in Freetown Thursday as they attempted to board a ferry bound for Conakry, but the circumstances surrounding the detention of, by varying accounts 23 or 26 people, is unclear. BBC Freetown correspondent Lansana Fofana, quoting sources at Sierra Leone's Criminal Investigation Division (CID), said those detained were Liberian mercenaries from various warring factions in Liberia's civil war. "But then they switched sides and were fighting alongside the Kamajor militia group in Sierra Leone," Fofana said. "And I’m told by sources at the CID that the fought around Zimmi and along the border with Liberia...My understanding is that these Liberian mercenaries have been telling the police that they are cooling off from the Kamajor side and going over to Guinea Conakry to fight on the side of the government there because, according to them, they have not been paid by the (CDF) in Sierra Leone nor the government. And therefore, because they are running dry of cash, they want to go over to Guinea and fight for the government there against insurgents." BBC West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle, who quoted senior police officials as saying the detainees were "mostly Liberians," speculated that they had most likely been planning to join the rebels fighting the Guinean government, but added: "The overlapping wars causing chaos throughout West Africa have led to murky scenarios." The French news agency Agence France-Presse quoted a police spokeswoman as saying 26 suspected mercenaries, including Sierra Leoneans and Guineans, had been apprehended while others managed to escape. She said suspicion was aroused because the 26 lacked proper papers. Among those arrested were two former instructors from the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, the faction which was headed by Liberian President Charles Taylor. The two were identified as John Ballah and Mohamed Sanbullah. Fofana, in his report, noted that Liberian mercenaries had been fighting on all sides in Sierra Leone's decade-long civil conflict. He also cited reports that Sierra Leoneans were being recruited in the north of the country, and in Makeni in particular, to take part in the fighting in Guinea.

A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman said Thursday the agency was "encouraged" about the proposed deployment of over 1,600 West African troops in Guinea's troubled border regions with Liberia and Sierra Leone, but he said their presence would be insufficient to return stability to the region. "It’s approximately 1,600 men for a very porous forested border that is perhaps that length in kilometres, and so we don’t have any illusions about security being fully established in the area," Paul Stromberg told Radio France International. Stromberg said the UNHCR's first priority was to assist refugees in Gueckedou Prefecture, and to establish new camp sites so that refugees could remain in safety in Guinea. But, he said, the agency would assist those who wished to return to Sierra Leone "if they really insist on it." Stromberg said the UNHCR would work to ensure that those returning home did so under proper circumstances. "Many were taking very unsafe and unseaworthy vessels back from Conakry in the days following the attacks," he said. "And so we’ve organised a boat which will also enable us to track down separated families afterwards if we do it in a more organised manner." Stromberg said many of the returnees would not be able to return to their home areas because of security concerns. "We want to make sure they understand that just because there have been Revolutionary United Front attacks in Guinea that Sierra Leone is not necessarily any safer," he said. Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said Thursday it had sent more staff to Guinea's borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia in an effort to bring aid to refugee camps which have received no food for months. The UNHCR said its staff planned to visit the southern Gueckedou area, where recent fighting has forced humanitarian organisations to suspend operations, to see whether food and medical aid could be delivered. The agency sent 13 emergency staff to Kissidougou on Wednesday. "Many of the camps have not received food for several months," the agency said in a statement. "Eyewitnesses say refugees are now taking crops from local farmers' fields." In Western Guinea, the UNHCR says it plans to move some 22,000 refugees in the Forecariah Prefecture to camps further from the border.

A source close to the Sierra Leone military has denied RUF claims that a government helicopter gunship attacked rebel positions in the north of the country late last month. RUF spokesman Gibril Massaquoi told the BBC on Monday that the gunship had attacked the towns of Kambia and Rokupr. "The government gunship has not carried out any offensive operations since the beginning of the ceasefire," the source told the Sierra Leone Web on Thursday. "The last flight that was carried out was on the 23rd December 2000, and that was as escort to the president's visit to Kabala." A spokesperson for British forces in Sierra Leone also denied the claim. "The Joint Task Force Headquarters cannot speak directly for the Sierra Leone Army, however to the very best of our knowledge, this allegation by the RUF is entirely without foundation," the spokesperson told the Sierra Leone Web.

The United States has circulated a draft resolution at the United Nations Security Council which would impose an arms embargo on Liberia, which has been accused of arming Sierra Leone's RUF rebels, diplomats told the Associated Press on Wednesday. In fact, a U.N. ban on weapons shipments to Liberia has been in effect since November 1992, although it has been largely ignored. According to the AP, the draft resolution incorporates most of the recommendations by a U.N. panel of experts, which charged that Liberia has been central to the illicit diamonds-for-arms trade and in backing rebel forces. It would impose an global ban on all Liberian diamond exports until the government can show that it is no longer supporting the rebels and helping them to smuggle gemstones, a U.S. official was quoted as saying. The U.S. draft resolution would also impose an arms embargo on Liberia, forbidding countries or their nationals from providing that country with any arms, ammunition or paramilitary equipment. 

OAU Secretary-General Salim Ahmad Salim expressed concern Thursday about the "catastrophic effect" sanctions would have on the people of Liberia. Salim arrived in Monrovia Wednesday for talks with Liberian President Charles Taylor aimed at restoring calm in the Guinea - Liberia - Sierra Leone border area. "If they are applied, sanctions will certainly have an effect on not only those targeted, but the ordinary people," Salim said following his meeting with Taylor. "We are concerned about the possibility of sanctions against Liberia. I have discussed this at length with the president. We believe that it is very important to find a way out. On the one hand the international community has expressed some concern. On the other hand, the Liberian government has got its own explanation —  very strong explanation —  and (at the) same time the ECOWAS countries have been trying to help in terms of promoting stability and security [words indistinct] by the OAU...Everything that can be done should be done to avert the question of sanctions." But Salim also urged Taylor to cooperate with the international community and to address U.N. concerns about diamond smuggling and weapons trafficking. He added that the OAU was in support of an ECOWAS decision to post military observers along Guinea's borders with Liberia and Sierra Leone. The secretary-general is due to hold talks in Conakry Friday with Guinean President Lansana Conte.

Gambia's Ambassador to the United Nations, Baboucarr-Blaise Jagne, has rejected allegations by a U.N. panel of experts, which said his country had become a major transit point for the sale of conflict diamonds, and demanded that panel members withdraw their "damaging and malicious allegations." "The Gambia requires the panel to withdraw its statement and indicate the dates on which the panel of experts could visit the Gambia, so that we could together inform the world that the allegations were unfounded," Jagne wrote in a letter to the Security Council on Wednesday. The panel did not implicate the Gambian government in its report, but a source close to the panel told the Sierra Leone Web on Thursday that "they have to know about it," adding that there were "diamonds aplenty roaming around Banjul." But even as Jagne challenged the reports findings in New York, the Gambian Department of State for Foreign Affairs issued a statement in Banjul acknowledging that "a lot of private Gambian citizens" were involved in trading illicit diamonds from Sierra Leone and Angola. "Therefore, while it is likely that diamonds may be transiting through Gambia to other European Union destinations, the government of Gambia has neither condoned nor involved itself in such transactions and consequently does not derive any revenue from this trade, either through taxes or otherwise," the statement said.

France will send 40 tons of humanitarian aid to Guinea to assist hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees displaced by recent rebel attacks in the south of the country, French Foreign Ministry Assistant Spokesman Bernard Valero said on Wednesday. The Valero said a recent surge in attacks by rebels based in Sierra Leone and Liberia had led to a deteriorating situation for the refugees over the past few weeks. France will send an aircraft carrying humanitarian aid to Guinea by the end of the week to help the Red Cross and other non-governmental organisations working to help refugees in the field, he said. Valero added that France would assist efforts by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to repatriate thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea who want to return home.

The United Nations Security Council has re-designated Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury of Bangladesh to head the Sierra Leone Sanctions Committee for an additional year. The names of the new chairpersons to head ten committees monitoring sanctions against countries or groups around the world were announced by Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore, the Security Council president for January.

3 January: UNAMSIL officers and RUF officials met at the southeastern town of Tallia on Tuesday for what was described as a confidence-building meeting, the BBC reported on Wednesday. Journalist Sabah Moriba travelled with convoys of U.N. peacekeepers from Kenema and Daru, which passed through burned-down towns and villages before arriving at Tallia for a meeting at the town's court barrie. RUF battlefield commander Colonel Amara Bockarie announced the reopening of all roads into rebel-held areas, and stressed that the RUF was now committed to peace, Moriba said. Bockarie also called on internally-displaced persons to return to their homes, and asked that humanitarian groups resume aid to communities in areas under RUF control. According to Moriba, traditional chiefs from Kenema District, Kono District and Kailahun District also attended the meeting.

800 Nigerian troops of the 195th Motorised Infantry Battalion have taken part in a passing out ceremony at Nigerian Army Headquarters in Ibadan after undergoing ten weeks of training from U.S. Army Special Forces instructors, the VOA reported on Wednesday. The soldiers received instruction in battlefield tactics, marksmanship, first aid and, according to U.S. Warrant Officer Brian Wilson, human rights. "We talked about ‘collateral damage’ —  you know, when you’re going into a village and you’re receiving fire, you can’t spray the entire village down because that’s not warranted," Wilson said. "You need to concentrate your fire on the specific threat. Do not destroy a mosque, do not destroy a church, simply because it’s there, because it’s of a differing faith than your own." The Nigerian soldiers are expected to join the UNAMSIL force in Sierra Leone this month. Their graduation this week marks the first phase of "Operation Focus Relief" —  a $50 million U.S. programme to train half a dozen battalions from Nigeria, Ghana and a third West African country in preparation for a peace-enforcement role with the U.N. peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone. This role was stressed by the Nigerian divisional commander, who told the graduating soldiers that their next assignment would be to protect civilians and to fight rebels in the Sierra Leonean jungle. "Any fatalities on the battlefield will be rebels," he said. The United Nations Security Council last year gave the peacekeeping force a more robust mandate, but Council members have thus far been reluctant to change the force's mission from one of peacekeeping to peace enforcement.

A spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva said Wednesday that the agency would repatriate Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea who "insist on going back," but stressed that "UNHCR is not promoting repatriation to Sierra Leone because security conditions in much of Sierra Leone are not conducive to return," UNCHR Ron Redmond told the BBC. He said the change in policy was the result of insecurity in the border areas which had caused tens of thousands of refugees to flee camps, with many attempting to reach the Guinean capital, Conakry. "These refugees seem to think that they are safer and better off in Sierra Leone than they are in Guinea, and the reason for this is because they say, number one, there are rebel attacks taking place down in the southwest of Guinea, and two, the population of Guinea is beginning to turn against the refugees in some places because they blame the refugees for bringing these cross-border rebel attacks into Guinea." Meanwhile, a UNHCR spokesman in Conakry said Wednesday the agency would begin broadcasting messages on Radio Guinea explaining that life in Sierra Leone was still extremely difficult. According to the BBC, the spokesman said the agency had chartered a second boat, the Fanta, which could shuttle as many as 500 people at a time from Conakry to Freetown, but added that the UNHCR did not want to be seen as encouraging the people from one war zone to another.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has reunited four unaccompanied refugee children with their families in Daru and Kenema, the agency said on Wednesday. Three children, aged nine, ten and fourteen years, respectively, were located by Save the Children Fund in Liberia where they had lived as refugees for three years. The ICRC then took them to Sierra Leone —  the first successful cross-border family reunification from Liberia since the ICRC resumed work in Sierra Leone in May 1999. The fourth child, a 13-year old boy, was found in a refugee camp in Guinea where he had been staying since 1993. He was sent back to Daru via Conakry. In all four cases, the agency said, initial contacts between the children and their families was made through Red Cross messages. The ICRC, in coordination with other agencies and Sierra Leone's Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs, is pursuing the cases of at least 220 more children in Guinea, Liberia and Nigeria who are looking for their families, the agency said.

2 January: A group of missionary sisters who have worked for the past five years to assist refugees in Guinea's troubled Forest Region pulled out for good on Sunday, with a warning that the situation is fast developing into a humanitarian crisis. "You have practically the whole relocation or the displacement of the Guinean population which must be at least 150,000 to 200,000 people, and you have easily 300,000 refugees," Sr. Ann Kelly told the BBC after the group of Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary arrived in Conakry on Sunday. "The entire area is on the move in one direction or another, and the fear is that you will turn into something like Rwanda where you have people just caught in the cross-fire and in the harassment of war, caught on all sides by the RUF, by the rebels from Liberia, and then caught in the defence forces on the other side, because there’s nowhere to avoid that." Kelly said many of the more vulnerable refugees and Guinean residents —  women, children and the elderly  —  had died after being forced to flee the camps, particularly in the Gueckedou area. "Many of the children died from exposure," she said. "Many old people were not able to make the journey...They died on the way, they were just left behind. Many of the women either delivered on the way, had premature deliveries, lost the children, and many died themselves. And so the loss of life will not even be possible to estimate at this time." Kelly said the main desire of the Sierra Leonean refugees now was to return home. Some, she said, had crossed into Kono District, which remains under RUF control. "Who knows what will happen to these people," she said. "After all, they ran away from the RUF in the first place." Kelly stressed the urgency of relocating the refugees to safer areas away from the troubled border region. "You cannot say that refugees should be left where they are, because where they are is as volatile if not more volatile than a large portion of Sierra Leone at the minute," she said. "There’s no way to call the area of the Forest Region safe at this moment. And I think the proof of that is in the way the Guineans have moved. And that in itself, what’s it like if you see the situation where the refugees are surrounded by completely empty villages, empty towns. Do you stay trapped inside there and say it’s not safe to move these somewhere else? I don’t think so. I ran for my life. I find it impossible to think of saying to someone, ‘You stay here and wait while I find myself a safe haven’."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has received final clearance from Guinea's Interior Ministry to begin work on a new transit camp for 60,000 refugees at Sangardo, 30 km. northwest of Kissidougou, the agency said on Tuesday. Workers began clearing brush over the weekend. Two other sites have also been approved, at Albadaria and Dabola, north and west of Faranah. A UNHCR technical team was due to visit Dabola on Tuesday. Meanwhile, work teams salvaged materials from the largely destroyed camps of Bodou and Katkama in the south. The materials will be  used for new construction at Sangardo. The UNHCR has also begun a sensitisation campaign to inform the local Guinean population about the need to protect and assist the refugees. Many Guineans blame the refugees for recent cross-border attacks by insurgents. The UNHCR is also launching an information programme for Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea about conditions in their homeland if they should choose to return. At Nyandou Camp, 15 km. north of Gueckedou, refugees are continuing to come out of the bush, swelling the camp's population from 15,000 to 23,000. The refugee population at Massakoundou has grown as well, and now stands at 35,000 —  15,000 more than its planned capacity. In Conakry, dozens of Sierra Leonean refugees are continuing to arrive daily after fleeing camps in insecure parts of the country. Nearly 2,400 refugees are currently at the transit camp in the Guinean capital, waiting to return to Freetown by sea, the UNHCR said. Because of the continuing demand, the camp's capacity is being more than doubled, to accommodate 5,000 persons. In addition, a second ship is being sought to help repatriate the refugees. As of Saturday, the UNHCR-chartered vessel MV Overbeck had returned 1,559 Sierra Leoneans to Freetown in five trips, including 18 children who were separated from their families during panicked flight from the camps in December. The UNHCR statement noted a growing problem in Freetown, as returnees refused to leave transit centres after a maximum five day stay. On Friday, about 1,000 returnees who were scheduled to be transferred to another site refused to move. The UNHCR will now transfer returning refugees originating from unsafe areas of the country directly from the port to alternative temporary accommodations, the agency said.

A British military spokesperson confirmed Tuesday that Britain will maintain its current level of troops in Sierra Leone through the end of the year, when the retraining of the Sierra Leone Army is expected to be complete. "At the moment we’ve trained just over 6,000, and our agreement was that we’d train the whole of the army which is just over 9,000," said Major Debbie Noble, spokesperson for the British forces in Sierra Leone. "By continuing our presence here in that capacity, that would enable us to finish the task and also to do some additional training, some continuation training, some specialist training, leadership, and other things that we haven’t been doing as part of the initial training package." Noble told Radio France International that Britain would continue thereafter to have a military presence in Sierra Leone, but that the level had not yet been decided. She referred to the British-led International Military Advisory and Training Team (IMATT) of some 70 officers helping to restructure the Sierra Leone Army in various "specialist areas" such as finance and payroll. IMATT is expected to continue in that capacity "for another three years or so," Noble said.

Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore has denied findings by by two U.N. panels of experts that his country is used as a transit point for the illegal diamonds and weapons trade with rebel forces Sierra Leone and Angola. The panel of experts charged with investigating the link between the illicit gem trade and arms trafficking in Sierra Leone said last month there was "conclusive evidence" of supply lines to Liberia through Burkina Faso, and that weapons supplied to Burkina Faso by governments or private arms dealers had been "systematically diverted for use in the conflict in Sierra Leone." In a newspaper interview quoted Tuesday by Radio France International, Compaore claimed the accusations came from sources deliberately trying to discredit Burkina Faso. He said his country was waiting to take part in U.N. debates on the issues of mercenaries and diamond smuggling. Meanwhile, a Gambian government spokesman has rejected charges by the panel that his country is involved in the illicit diamond trade. Secretary of State for Youth and Sports M. Sarjo Jallow, who is also chairman of the government's spokespersons committee, claimed there was no evidence linking the Gambian government to the trade in "conflict diamonds." "From available data, there is no indication that diamonds constitute either export or re-export from the Gambia to any destination in the world," the Daily Observer quoted him as saying. Gambia, which produces no diamonds of its own, in recent years has become a "mini-Antwerp," the U.N. panel said. Belgium recorded diamond imports from the Gambia in 1998 at $78.3 million and in 1999 at $48.2 million. Gambia did not respond to the panel's request for information on diamond imports and exports, and Jallow denied any diamond trade through Gambia at all. His country is only involved in the export of groundnuts, not diamonds, he said, adding that the Department of State for Foreign Affairs was pursuing the matter.

1 January: British troops will remain in Sierra Leone until the war is over, the commander of British forces in the country told the BBC on Monday. "We will leave when the war is either won or resolved on favourable terms," Brigadier Jonathan Riley told the BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "My reading of the situation of the rebels is that they are not in a good way and their situation is getting worse. The war is only going to end in one way and it is not going to end in their favour, because the whole world's hand is against them. I think the end is in sight. In the short term, I think that we will be there in much the same numbers for the rest of this year. Thereafter, we should expect to be here in the same form as we are in other countries, such as South Africa." Riley said British military trainers had already trained more than 6,000 Sierra Leonean soldiers at the Benguema Military Training Centre. Britain has committed to training 10,500 troops in an effort to create a more professional and democratically-accountable army for Sierra Leone.

RUF spokesman Gibril Massaquoi accused the Sierra Leone Army and Guinean troops Monday of attacking RUF positions in northern Sierra Leone. "On the 28th of December last year, our positions at Mange Bureh in the Port Loko District was attacked by government forces," Massaquoi told Radio France International. "On the 29th of the same month last year, government forces again attacked our positions at Masire, [Salatok] and Rosinor, and burned down all the villages. And that same date, the Guinean troops also attacked our positions at [Moribaya], and they killed six civilians. On the 30th of December last year, at about 1:15 p.m., the government helicopter gunship attacked Kambia town and wounded a seven-year old boy, and damaged several houses. Three civilians were also killed when the same gunship attacked Rokupr again. And these attacks are being done by both the Guinean troops and the government forces, all in a bid to just take over Kambia District." There has been no independent confirmation of the RUF spokesman's claims.