The Sierra Leone Web

Cape_Lighthouse
 

February 2002
 

28 February: The presidents of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, who met on Wednesday for a Mano River Union summit in Rabat, Morocco, have pledged to "promote mutual trust, consolidate peace, understanding (and) good neighbourliness" and to take action to ensure "total security along their common borders." President Kabbah, President Charles Taylor of Liberia and President Lansana Conte of Guinea reaffirmed their commitment to repatriate refugees and to provide assistance to displaced persons in their three countries, and they condemned the actions of what they described as "non-state actors" who are carrying out insurgencies in the sub-region. Officials will meet next week to discuss implementation measures. In New York, U.N. Security Council President Adolfo Aguilar Zinser of Mexico said Council members welcomed what he described as the "long over-due meeting" between three three leaders, and encouraged the parties to implement the decisions taken at the summit "as soon as possible." 

Behrooz Sadry, the acting Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General in Sierra Leone, has pledged the U.N. will take "necessary corrective action" if allegations are substantiated that U.N. peacekeepers have been involved in the sexual exploitation of refugee children. The allegations came to light this week in a report by the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, and the British-based charity Save the Children, which found a widespread pattern of local aid workers demanding sex from underage refugee girls in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea in exchange for relief food and other essential humanitarian supplies. Local authorities and U.N. peacekeepers were also said to have been involved. In a statement issued from Freetown on Thursday, Sadry said that all military contingents serving in the UNAMSIL force were received extensive training on women's and children's rights, which were part of their Codes of Conduct. "When presented with credible evidence, UNAMSIL has taken immediate action by investigating reports of misconduct by its peacekeepers," Sadry said. "If peacekeepers are found to have committed an offense, they are subject to rigorous disciplinary action." Sadry invited those with concrete information on offenses committed by peacekeepers to come forward so that appropriate action could be taken. Meanwhile U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers (pictured left) expressed shock at the report and said that underfunding of his agency and lax enforcement of codes of conduct by aid agencies had made it easier for predators to exploit children rendered vulnerable by years of war, the Associated Press reported. "That is the responsibility of the international community...I have already warned that if you underfund the UNHCR, you are really adding to poverty and miserable situations," he said upon his arrival in the Rwandan capital Kigali.

A new report by the civil society group Campaign for Good Governance (CGG) finds that Sierra Leone's health sector is "in an appalling state and immediately requires new resources policies and structures." The report, which was released in Freetown on Thursday, characterises the country's health care delivery system as "over-centralised, under-funded, under-staffed and riddled with petty corruption and allegations of high-level wrongdoing" and notes that the sector is largely supported by international non-governmental organisations. The group called for a dramatic increase in governmental funding for the country's hospitals and clinics, an overhaul and the reform of the health sector. It also urged the adoption of two principles: the right to life-saving treatment, and the right to equal access. The CGG comes as a nurses strike of Sierra Leone's hospitals entered its third week, leaving the sick, accident victims and pregnant women who cannot afford private medial treatment without care. Last week, the CGG noted reports that some patients had died due to a lack of care, while others were forced to undergo intense pain and suffering. Many patients, with no prospect of care, "have left and continue to leave the hospitals," the group said. A BBC reporter who visited Freetown's Connaught Hospital (pictured above) found patients with unchanged bandages and untended festering wounds following surgery, while rats roamed under the floorboards. "The rats are normally confined to the area around the operating theatre, where they live off bloody swabs thrown out after operations," said Tom McKinley. "But now that there are no more operations they are extending their territory. McKinley described Ward Five, one of the few wards left which still admits patients: "The smell is overpowering. It hasn’t been cleaned for weeks. There are empty beds around me because many people have left. They weren’t receiving any treatment. But the few unlucky ones that are still here are lying here with dirty dressings on." Red Cross volunteer staff and military nurses are trying to maintain some degree of medial care at Connaught, McKinley said, but they are overwhelmed and unable to copy with any more patients. And while the government has offered a small increase in nurses' salaries, Nurses' Association President Francis Komba Kono said it wasn't enough. "Let them give us an increment in allowances," she said. "If we have our allowances, we’ll settle for that. But we are not paid extra duty allowances. We are not paid rural posting allowances. We are not paid hazard allowances. We have a lot of problems, we are exposed to a lot of hazards. And that is making the job very difficult for us." The Nurses' Association first contacted government and civil service officials about their plight in late December, but they say their concerns have yet to be adequately addressed. Health and Sanitation Minister Ibrahim Tejan-Jalloh insisted, however, that the government had not abandoned them. "There are consultants, U.N. consultants, who are presently working on a new regrading, and will be completed sometime around April," he said, adding: "Let us remember that our economy, just emerging from war, is 70 percent donor-driven. But the government is willing to do something to help them as soon as possible. Definitely, they’ll be getting more pay."

The United Kingdom will remain committed to Sierra Leone for the next decade and beyond, provided that the government addresses the problem of corruption and works to build up "proper, effective, modern state institutions that run the economy right, that are properly democratic, that provide services to all the people — not just in Freetown," visiting Minister of State for International Development Clare Short told the BBC. Short told BBC correspondent Lansana Fofana that Britain's commitment was not to any one government or individual, but to the people of the country. "We think that President Kabbah has done some good things for the country and we respect that, but we absolutely believe in the right of the people of Sierra Leone to elect their own leaders," she said. "We will be committed to working with Sierra Leone with whatever leader the people of Sierra Leone select, provided that leadership is determined to deal with the problem of corruption. That’s an absolute condition of our continuing support." Sierra Leone is scheduled to hold its first presidential and parliamentary elections since 1996 in mid-May. Short said that despite problems in resettling refugees and displaced persons, and glitches in the registration process, both of which have meant that large numbers of persons will be precluded from voting, she didn't think the elections were premature. "Obviously the last elections that Sierra Leone had were imperfect because there wasn’t order over a large part of the country, so a lot of people didn’t have the chance to participate in the elections,” she said. “I mean, we’re all working together to reconstruct Sierra Leone. Of course there isn’t perfection yet…The chance to have an election that extends right across the country and the people have a chance to have their say —  that’s very, very important. It won’t be a perfect election, but it will be, I’m sure, a free and fair election. Then we could all work together from the beginning at really reconstructing the country, and then there’ll be another election in due time.”

The situation in Sierra Leone will be on the agenda when Jordan hosts the 114-member Non-Aligned Movement summit in July, according to Jordanian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Shaher Baek. Jordan current holds the three-year rotating presidency of Non-Aligned Movement.

27 February: Presidents Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone (pictured left), Lansana Conte of Guinea and Charles Taylor of Liberia (right) met in closed session Wednesday in an effort to resolve border tensions which have plagued their three nations for more than a decade. King Mohammed VI opened the Mano River Union summit which, at his invitation, is being held in the Moroccan capital Rabat. "The first session of talks was attended by Guinea's, Liberia's and Morocco's foreign ministers and security and army senior officials," the Reuters news agency quoted a senior Moroccan government official as saying. "The king has invited the three leaders to reach a strong peace accord, and things are moving in the right direction," the official added. 

As the presidents of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea prepared to meet in Morocco Wednesday in an effort to resolve years of strife in their common border region, Liberia's foreign minister again accused Guinea of backing armed rebels in his country. "We want them to stop lending support to the dissidents, to the LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy)," Monie Captan told BBC West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle. "They’ve continuously denied it, but if you look at the geography of the positions of rebels. The only way they can sustain support is from the back door, which is Guinea. To be honest with you, we cannot overcome these differences unless we be candid with each other and address the hard issues. But we are not going to allow these issues to be impediments to our progress in our discussions." Captan played down the suggestion, made by some observers both inside and outside of Liberia, that his government was looking to exaggerate the rebel threat in an effort to have the United Nations to lift sanctions on Liberia, imposed by the Security Council last year for the Liberian government's alleged role in backing Sierra Leone's RUF rebels, and for its involvement in the illegal arms-for-diamonds trade in the sub-region. "I don’t agree with that," he said. "I expect that to be the position of quite a lot of people. But the fact remains that the war in Sierra Leone is over, and that’s sufficient to have the sanctions lifted. We don’t need to create a war in Liberia to demand that the sanctions are lifted. I think that the war in Sierra Leone is over. There is no basis to maintain the sanctions on Liberia."

The United Nations Security Council decided on Wednesday to send a Panel of Experts to Liberia to assess whether the government is abiding by U.N. resolutions designed to isolate Sierra Leone's RUF rebels. Last March, the Security Council imposed a range of sanctions on the government of President Charles Taylor for his alleged support for the RUF, and for his involvement in the illegal arms-for-diamonds trade in the sub-region. The sanctions, imposed in May after intervention by ECOWAS failed to bring the activities to a stop, included a strengthened arms embargo, an embargo on the export of Liberian diamonds, and a ban on international travel by senior Liberian officials. According to the Xinhua news service, the panel will also visit neighbouring countries to determine whether Liberia is in compliance with the embargo on diamond sales.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan (pictured right) is "shocked and disturbed" at allegations of extensive sexual abuse of refugee children in West African refugee camps by aid workers, his spokesman said in New York. "The secretary-general has directed that these allegations be investigated as thoroughly and urgently as possible, and remedial action aimed at strengthening the protection of women and children be taken as necessary," Marie Okabe said in a statement. She added that there was currently an investigative team in the area to look into the situation. "The secretary-general reiterates the policy of zero tolerance for any such acts perpetrated by any one employed by or affiliated with the United Nations," Okabe said. "He intends to act forcefully should any of these allegations be confirmed and undertakes to do so in a transparent and expeditious manner." Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said it would send a team of investigators to look into allegations that aid workers in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have been involved in the sexual exploitation of the children they had pledged to protect, a senior U.N. official in the region told the Reuters news agency on Wednesday. "A high-powered team will be sent from Geneva to the three countries," the official said. "We will do our utmost to make sure any perpetrators are brought before the courts." The scandal came to light on Tuesday when some of the findings of a mission conducted late last year by the UNHCR and the British-based charity Save the Children were released to the press. The study, which relied heavily on testimony from refugee children, their family members and neighbours, alleged that 67 local aid workers attached to 40 agencies had traded relief food and essential humanitarian supplies to underage girls for sex. So far, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told Reuters, the allegations have not been substantiated. "Some individuals were named but the evidence is largely anecdotal for the moment," he said, adding: "Most of the hands-on work in refugee camps anywhere around the world is done by locally hired staff. This has always been a problem in refugee camps." Also alleged to have participated in the exploitation of refugee girls were local authorities and members of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone, UNAMSIL. "We haven't seen the report yet but we would investigate the allegations to see if there's any truth in them and take appropriate action if anything is found," UNAMSIL spokesperson Margaret Novicki told Reuters in Freetown.

26 February: The leaders of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia arrived in the Moroccan capital Rabat Tuesday ahead of Wednesday's Mano River Union summit aimed at finding a solution to years of conflict in the sub-region. President Kabbah left Freetown for Conakry Tuesday morning, and then travelled with Guinean President Lansana Conte to Rabat, where the two leaders were received by King Mohammed VI. Liberian President Charles Taylor arrived in the Moroccan capital earlier in the day. There has been considerable tension between Guinea and Liberia in recent months, with both sides accusing the other of supporting insurgents in their territory. Last year the United Nations imposed sanctions on Taylor's government for its alleged support of the RUF rebel movement during Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war. Last year, Conte vowed he would never sit down at the same table with Taylor. He later relented following a personal appeal by a delegation of women from the Mano River Union countries. Wednesday's summit was preceded by a series of high-level ministerial meetings last year, held in Monrovia, Freetown and Conakry. The three countries' foreign ministers met in Rabat on Tuesday to prepare the groundwork for Wednesday's talks. A foreign ministry spokesman was quoted as saying that King Mohammed planned to meet the three presidents at his royal palace in Rabat around midday, prior to the start of the talks.

Three prominent opposition leaders signed a memorandum of understanding Tuesday committing their parties to working in coalition to contest next May's presidential and parliamentary elections, the Freetown newspaper Concord Times reported. Signing the memorandum were former AFRC junta leader Johnny Paul Koroma (pictured left) for the PLP, Dr. John Karefa-Smart (right) for the UNPP, and Abdul Rahman Kamara for the PDA, the newspaper said. Karefa-Smart was quoted as saying that, if necessary, the three parties might consider presenting a single presidential candidate at the polls.

For years, the Sierra Leonean passport has been dogged by a reputation of being one of the easiest in the world to forge or to obtain fraudulently. Now the Sierra Leone government is taking action to upgrade the document, but at the cost of considerable inconvenience to passport holders living abroad. On June 5, all of the old-style Sierra Leonean passports will expire. While Sierra Leone's embassies abroad will continue to provide application forms, the new documents can only be obtained in Freetown. "The changeover is to make it counterfeit proof," said John Leigh (pictured left), Sierra Leone's Ambassador to the United States. "It will be now a world-class passport where the photograph of the holder is embedded in the page. It’s part of the page, so you cannot cut out the photograph and replace the photograph there. If you do so, you destroy the passport." Leigh said the embassies would not be issuing passports due to security concerns. "We don't want things to be missing in the mail, and we don't want any inventory to be unaccounted for," he said. The application forms, together with three passport photos, a photocopy of the first four pages of the applicant's current passport, and a Le 40,000 application fee, must be delivered to the immigration office in Freetown — preferably by a trusted friend or a relative. Daphne Sawyerr-Dunn (right), a Washington, D.C.-based advocate for Sierra Leonean immigration issues, said she doubted the new system would create undue hardship for Sierra Leoneans living outside their country. "I do think that we all have family members in Sierra Leone who, if we send them the necessary documents, will be able to get these passports for us," she said. Sawyerr-Dunn expressed concern, however, that the information about the changeover was not getting out. "I'm finding out that a lot of people are still not aware of this," she said. "Some are just hearing about it for the first time over the last few days." Ambassador Leigh acknowledged that the new system was "not the most efficient," but he described it as "a balancing of the equities."  "It is security of the passport against fraud, versus inconvenience for some applicants," he said. "Don't forget, fraud is a major cause of the troubles in Sierra Leone. I want to put an end to that. But I have recommended to the government that we begin to look at other ways to ease the burden on people who are overseas." Leigh insisted that the benefits to Sierra Leoneans of having a "world-class" passport would outweigh the inconvenience. "We want to make sure the Sierra Leone passport has integrity," he said. "When the passport has integrity, Sierra Leoneans will be able to travel to more countries without having to go through visa systems like we are doing now because the passport has no integrity."

Aid workers in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are alleged to have sexually exploited the refugee children they were bound to protect, according to a study commissioned by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, and the British-based charity Save the Children. The study was based largely on children's testimonies gathered during a 40-day mission to the sub-region in late October and November, the UNHCR said in a statement. Most of those covered by the allegations were male national staff who traded humanitarian commodities for sex with girls under the age of 18, but international peacekeepers and even community leaders were implicated as well. The problem appeared to be most pronounced in places with significant and established aid programs, especially at refugee camps in Guinea and Liberia, the agency said. Jane Gibril, Save the Children's country director for Liberia, told BBC West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle that a study to look at issues affecting refugee children "unexpectedly it came up with a very, very extensive pattern of exploitation" involving some 70 workers employed by 40 different agencies. "Unfortunately, the study tells that the very people who are meant to be providing services protecting children, young people, are the exploiters themselves," she said. "And so therefore we have a situation where food, shelter materials, all sorts of items — humanitarian items — are used to exploit sexual services from young people and children." Most of those implicated, Gibril said, were local aid workers, but in Sierra Leone members of the United Nations peacekeeping force were also alleged to have been involved. "Clearly these are all allegations at present and they need to be properly investigated," she said. "But through the sheer scope of the study — 1,500 people were interviewed: children, family members, community members, aid workers. So that is a large number of people, and it is a story of universal exploitation." The full report is due to be made public in mid-March.

Arrangements for the Special Court for Sierra Leone are still being finalised, and may go to the Security Council within the next week or so, a United Nations spokesman said in New York. The court, to be set up jointly by the United Nations and the Sierra Leone government, is charged with prosecuting those deemed to bear the greatest responsibility for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone since 30 November 1996 — the date of the ill-fated Abidjan Peace Accord.

25 February: The chairman of Sierra Leone's National Electoral Commission (NEC) has acknowledged flaws in the just-concluded voter registration exercise, but is insisting that overall, the process was a success, Associated Press correspondent Clarence Roy-Macaulay reported on Monday. "We had problems initially, and we were able to overcome them," said Walter Nicol (pictured left). "On the whole, we were quite satisfied." While final figures are not yet in, the NEC estimates that between 1.5 and two million persons registered to vote during the two-week registration period. In a report released on Friday, the Freetown-based civil society group Campaign for Good Governance said its observers had documented serious administrative and logistical problems which, the group said, may have resulted in the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of eligible voters. The observers also reported widespread underage and multiple registrations, along with other irregularities. Nicol said NEC officials had encountered a number of such cases, adding that they had been turned over to the police for investigation. He insisted, however, that other glitches, such as problems with the distribution of forms to registration centres, had been resolved by the end of the registration drive.

Sierra Leone's upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections were on the agenda Monday when United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan met in London with British International Development Secretary Clare Short. On Sunday, Prime Minister Tony Blair briefed the visiting Annan on his recent trip to West Africa, which included visits to Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, as well as a brief stopover in Sierra Leone.

22 February: Hundreds of thousands of eligible voters may be barred from taking part in this May's presidential and parliamentary elections due to glitches in Sierra Leone's just-concluded voter registration exercise, a Freetown-based civil society group said on Friday. In its final report on the voter registration process, the Campaign for Good Governance (CGG) said its 14-member monitoring team had found serious and widespread flaws in the exercise. The CGG cited a lack of public education and a combination of what it described as "significant administrative problems and resource constraints" as contributing to low turnout and registration irregularities. The monitors, who visited about one fifth of the registration centres in ten of Sierra Leone's twelve districts plus the Western Area, found that hundreds were forced to close or to operate improperly for reasons ranging from poor transportation to the absence of registration forms and indelible ink. The monitoring team said it found multiple and underage registration to be common throughout the country. Many centres registered voters without marking their thumbs with indelible ink, while the practice by would-be multiple voters of coating their thumbs with Vaseline, oil or clear nail polish so that the ink marks could be easily wiped off was said to be widespread. At some locations, officials demanded payment before registering persons to vote. "On the positive side, we saw no evidence of high-level sabotage or corruption of the process," the CGG report said. It added that the irregularities, although widespread, did not appear to be systematic or to favour any particular region. Given Sierra Leone's history of flawed elections, the CGG warned, it was important for the National Electoral Commission to get it right. "Voter registration is the first stage of the election process," the report said. "If it was flawed, the whole process will be flawed; if it is tainted, it will cast a shadow of illegitimacy over the elections and the next government." The group called for the commission to address administrative problems before the elections, and it urged police and local authorities to address the problems of registration fraud so that the final voter lists would be as legitimate as possible. And despite the problems, the CGG said, it was important that Sierra Leoneans exercise their right to vote. "The people of Sierra Leone (should) not use administrative problems as an excuse for disengaging from this vital national election," it said. "We must all take the initiative and demonstrate the patience to make this system work."

21 February: As rebel forces again struck near the Liberian capital Monrovia on Wednesday, the situation for displaced civilians and Sierra Leonean refugees has continued to deteriorate. "Definitely the recent events in Liberia, the increase in fighting, the advance of the rebels, and retreat as well have prompted a new exodus of refugees, especially into Sierra Leone but also few hundreds into Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire," said Delphine Marie, a Geneva-based spokesperson for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.  Marie told Radio France International that over the past two weeks there had been a dramatic increase in the number of Liberians seeking refuge in Sierra Leone. "(We) have had to put in place a certain number of emergency measures to receive them," she said. The UNHCR has also begun organising convoys of Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia anxious to return home. As of Tuesday, about 800 had made the journey, with the last group of 311 being taken to the town of Zimmi. Because of the insecurity in Liberia, the majority of the 38,000 Sierra Leoneans living in the six Liberian refugee camps now want to be repatriated and more are coming forward every day, the agency said this week.

20 February: The leaders of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have agreed to hold talks next week in Morocco, a spokesman for Liberian President Charles Taylor said on Wednesday. According to the Associated Press, presidential spokesman Vaani Paasawi said Taylor, President Kabbah and President Lansana Conte of Guinea would meet in the Moroccan capital Rabat on February 27 to discuss new fighting in Liberia. "The three leaders of the MRU (Mano River Union) region have now given their word to King Mohammed that they are committed to going to that summit," Paasawi was quoted as saying. "Liberia is under aggression and it is in the best interest of Liberia for such a forum to exist," he added. There was no immediate confirmation of the report. The Associated Press quoted a Moroccan foreign ministry source as saying that negotiations for the summit were still underway. According to the German news agency DPA, Morocco's King Mohammed VI sent a delegation the three countries to express his concern over the conflict in the sub-region and to offer his help in finding a settlement. Beginning last August, the Mano River Union's Joint Security Committee held a series of ministerial-level meetings in their respective capitals in an effort to resolve tensions between the three states. The meetings had been expected to pave the way for a presidential summit early this year. Meanwhile, aid agencies estimate some 60,000 persons, among them Sierra Leonean refugees, have been displaced by the fighting in Liberia, while military sources in Sierra Leone told the Reuters news agency that about 18,000 Liberians had crossed the border in recent days to seek refuge in Sierra Leone. The UNHCR, however, put the number at closer to 7,000, with an unknown number of Sierra Leonean refugees also having returned home on their own. Rebel forces, thought to be members of the dissident group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), appear to have edged closer to Monrovia after crossing the St. Paul River to attack the town of Haindi, Reuters said. The town lies about 45 miles from Monrovia and is located near the country's main highway.

The U.S.-based Gbonkolenken Descendants Organisation has contributed $6,000 toward the construction of a guest house in the town of Yele, the group's organisational secretary said on Wednesday. "Since rebels destroyed most of the decent housing in Yele during the war, the guest house would be open to people who need temporary lodging in Yele as they travel to the chiefdom," Jacob Sax Conteh said in a statement. Started in 1993, the Gbonkolenken Descendants Organisation raises money through dues and fundraisers, some of which went in recent years to help feed Gbonkolenken Chiefdom residents displaced by the war. Conteh said the contribution for the guest house was channelled through Housing, Country Planning and Environment Minister Alfred Bobson Sesay, himself Gbonkolenken Chiefdom native.

19 February: At least $17 million will be needed to deal with the humanitarian crisis sparked by recent fighting in Liberia, U.N. Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Ross Mountain said on Tuesday. Tens of thousands of Liberian civilians, and along with them thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees, have been forced to flee their homes in recent days to avoid being caught up in clashes between Liberian forces and the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). According to the Associated Press, Mountain, who is also director of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters that the money would be used in part to buy food and medicine. "It is imperative that the humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable people be met," he said. "The population caught in the cross-fire must not be made to suffer." Meanwhile, UNAMSIL and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, agreed on Tuesday to work together to deal with the sudden influx of Liberian refugees into Sierra Leone and the increased numbers of returnees from Liberia and Guinea. At a meeting in Freetown, UNHCR Country Representative Arnaud Akodjenou appealed to UNAMSIL to provide security and logistics to move the refugees away from the border area to resettlement camps inside Sierra Leone. Akodjenou stressed that the sudden inflow of returnees and refugees was being compounded by the movement of Sierra Leoneans living near the border, who fear a spill-over of the fighting from Liberia. According to a UNAMSIL statement, the agency has assisted the movement of about 6,640 Sierra Leonean refugees from the Sinje refugee camps in Liberia (photo) and more than 7,600 Liberians who were fleeing their country to find refuge in Sierra Leone.

When a little more than two years ago Moises Mendoza first came across a report on the internet about Sierra Leone's civil war, the story resonated with him. "My mother is Colombian and there’s a war going on in Colombia," he said. "So in a way what was going on in Sierra Leone caught my eye. And I was shocked by the atrocities that were going on there." The Oregon teenager decided that his fellow American students needed to know about what was happening in Sierra Leone, and so in November 1999 he made a presentation at his school, complete with pictures of the bloody rebel attack on Freetown. At first, he said, he had trouble convincing his schoolmates that children like themselves could be fighting as soldiers or that people were really hacking off body parts, but eventually he succeeded. "We launched a fundraising campaign and $6,000 was raised at my school, which has about 300 kids," he said. "And from there I just started speaking to people in the community." The money he raised went to the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, which, Mendoza said, was working in Sierra Leone at the time to rebuild burned down schools and to help reintegrate child soldiers into society. Then, in September 2000, a local group called Good Samaritan Ministries invited Mendoza to accompany them to Freetown. For the first time the young man came face to face with some of those whose story he had been striving to tell. "We had the opportunity to go to the amputee camp in Freetown and see some of the amputees," he said. "I had the opportunity to talk to them and try to come to some sort of an understanding of why this had happened. It’s just an unbelievable conflict and it was just amazing to go there and meet these courageous people who had withstood these horrible atrocities that had been done to them. And just to talk to them was a real honour." In recognition of his awareness campaign on behalf of Sierra Leone's child soldiers, Mendoza was named this month as a Distinguished Finalist for the 2002 Prudential Spirit of the Community Awards. Now 18 and a senior student at Westside Christian High School in Lake Oswego, Mendoza continues to be active in his community. He recently founded a mentorship programme which matches up older students with younger at-risk children. He is involved in the Special Olympics, and he is president of the Model United Nations in Oregon state. Next year, he plans to go to college, and he says he will likely seek a degree in international relations or political science. But Mendoza has not lost his focus on Sierra Leone. "The main thing was the friendliness of the people in spite of everything they had been through," he said. "I would definitely want to go back to Sierra Leone. I love Africa. It was amazing."

18 February: The RUF's interim leader, Issa Sesay, said over the weekend that the rebel movement was now engaged in organising and transforming itself into a political party. "We have no fear," he said. "Our people appreciate our ideology, and we are still sharing our ideology and not only in the northern part of the country but also in the east, the south and the Western Area." The RUF Party is expected to submit its registration papers to the National Electoral Commission sometime this week, and plans to contest in next May's presidential and parliamentary elections. "We (have) been talking to our people in this country (about) the RUF fight to change the system of this country because we need development, we need better education, we need better hospitality in this country," Sesay told BBC correspondent Lansana Fofana, adding: "That is our main aims. That is why we sacrificed our lives during the past ten years." Sesay said that the rebel group's message was getting through. "That (has) given me the courage and the confidence for me to disarm, because most of our people talk to us that it’s enough, they have appreciate our efforts," he said. "We believe our people (are) with us." Fofana noted that during his visit to the former rebel headquarters of Makeni, the only active party appeared to be the RUFP. Sesay replied that the rebels were not preventing any other party from campaigning in the town. "We are just a party like any other party in the country," he said. "So I mean any other party can come in and carry on the campaign as we are, as we too are standing by to do same because we are waiting for the state of emergency so that we can campaign in other areas." Sesay insisted that win or lose, the former rebel group would accept the result of the elections. "Not only me, but we will accept the results, and we will still continue to prepare ourselves for the next coming election," he said.

17 February: One group from the divided United National People's Party (UNPP) held its national convention on Sunday at the Miatta Convention Centre in Freetown. Reportedly, some 500 delegates came together to re-elect Dr. John Karefa-Smart (pictured right) as the party's national leader and presidential candidate for the upcoming elections. Karefa-Smart finished second to President Kabbah in 1996, and his party won 17 seats in parliament, giving it a delegation second in size only to the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party. Despite Sunday's vote, however, it is not yet certain whether Dr. Karefa-Smart will be his party's candidate come the polls in May. In early 1997, Karefa-Smart dismissed 14 of the 17 UNPP representatives from the party, and demanded that the Speaker expel them parliament. The Speaker declined to act, and for the past four years the matter has dragged on in the courts. Now, the dissident parliamentarians and their supporters have also laid claim to control of the UNPP party and, according to the Freetown newspaper Concord Times, are planning to hold a convention of their own in late February. The National Electoral Commission has yet to weigh in on the matter.

15 February: The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said Friday it was preparing to repatriate a second group of Sierra Leonean refugees from Liberia, where clashes in recent days between rebels and government forces has set off an exodus of refugees and displaced Liberians across the border. Around 430 Sierra Leoneans from the Sinje camps (pictured left) were expected to join the convoy, which was due to depart Friday afternoon or Saturday morning. On Thursday, a group of 243 returnees were given a warm welcome by Kailahun residents as they returned home to Sierra Leone. After spending the night in the border town of Jendema, they were taken to Blama Way Station outside Kenema, where they were expected to stay for several days before proceeding on to their home villages. Meanwhile Maya Ameretunga, the UNHCR's Officer in Charge said that 5,000 Sierra Leoneans, most of them from originally from Pujehun District, had surged into Jendema in the past week. She said that from now on, the agency would organise convoys on alternate days amounting to about 1,200 refugees returning each week. The UNHCR has has also been facilitating the repatriation of Sierra Leoneans from Guinea since December 2000, with an average of 500 returning each week. This is expected to increase to 1,500 a week by mid-March, Ameretunga said. In addition to the Sierra Leonean returnees, local authorities in Jendema have registered about 6,000 Liberian refugees. In Kailahun District, 1,600 refugees have arrived since the end of January, adding to an existing population of thousands who fled from fighting in Liberia's Lofa County last year. Ameretunga told reporters that 35,000 Sierra Leoneans lived in six refugees camps in Liberia before last week's fighting. 5,000 of those have returned to Sierra Leone on their own. In addition, she said, there are about 55,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea and another 8,000 in the Gambia. Many of those reaching Jendema were said to be in very poor condition. "They’ve been on the road for in some cases for one week and they are arriving in a very haggard condition," she said. "Malnutrition is highly rampant."

Belgian police have arrested Sanjivan Ruprah, a Kenyan arms broker alleged in a December 2000 United Nations Panel of Experts report to have been involved in the illegal arms-for-diamonds trade with the Liberian government. The panel accused Liberia in turn of providing support to Sierra Leone's RUF rebels. Ruprah was arrested February 5 in the Belgian capital Brussels, where he had been living for the past year, at least part of that time under police surveillance. According to Radio France International, he is being is being held on suspicion of associating with criminals and for holding a false passport. Ruprah reportedly travels using a Liberian diplomatic passport which identifies him as Samir M. Nasr, Liberia's Deputy Commissioner for Maritime Affairs. Liberian authorities told the U.N. panel they had no knowledge of him. Ruprah also is said to have played a key role in Liberia's airline registry, which the U.N. placed under sanctions last year because of the reported involvement of Liberian-registered planes in the smuggling of illicit arms in Africa.

A delegation of RUF leaders met Thursday with the U.N.'s Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Operations and Management ahead of the planned registration next week of the rebel group's political party, to request that the U.N. lift its travel ban on RUF members. The ban was imposed by the United Nations Security Council in June 1998 (Resolution 1171) although some members of the RUF were also included in an earlier travel ban on members of the AFRC military junta (Resolution 1132). The RUF Party's acting secretary-general, Pallo Bangura (pictured left), told Behrooz Sadry that the ban was putting the party at a disadvantage as the country moves towards presidential and parliamentary elections elections in May, because other parties are not subject to the restrictions. Bangura noted that the 1999 Lomé Peace Accord (Article III) required the Sierra Leone government to facilitate the RUF's transformation from a rebel movement into a political party, and called on the parties to the agreement — the government and the RUF — to approach the international community for resources to allow the group to function as such. Such resources, the accord said, could include a trust fund for the RUF. Bangura therefore presented Sadry with a letter addressed to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan requesting the lifting of the travel ban and the establishment of the fund.

A U.K.-based news photographer, Tim Hetherington, was named a winner Friday of the 2001 World Press Photo Contest for his photo, "School for the Blind, Sierra Leone." Hetherington, of Network Photographers, took first place in the Portraits Stories category. The World Press Photo Contest is sponsored by the non-profit World Press Foundation, based in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands.

14 February: Former U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone Joseph Melrose told a Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee Wednesday there was evidence that Sierra Leone's RUF rebels had sold diamonds to Hizbollah and to Osama bin Ladin's al-Qaeda Network. Both groups appear on a U.S. list of terrorist organisations, and al-Qaeda is widely believed to have carried out last September's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. "The fact that diamonds, as well as other resources, have been used both to fuel and fund conflicts in Africa is now generally accepted as fact," he said in a statement to the committee. "In addition, natural resources from Africa have provided funds for terrorist activities outside of Africa." Melrose, who is now on the faculty at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, said it was not clear whether the gem sales were a deliberate effort on the part of the the RUF to help al-Qaeda conceal its resources, or whether it was "simply a case of selling the illicit stones to whoever offers the best price." In the case of Hizbollah, he said, "a connection has existed for years through various Lebanese groups." Last month, the RUF claimed it had conducted an internal investigation into the allegations, first raised last November by Washington Post reporter Doug Farah, that members of the rebel group had sold diamonds to representatives of al-Qaeda, using a safe house in Liberia to conduct the transactions. RUF Political and Peace Council chairman Omrie Golley, who chaired the investigation, said an RUF panel had found no evidence of such sales. If the transactions took place, he said, they were made without RUF officials knowing that the people buying their diamonds were members of terrorist groups. Golley insisted that there was no ideological link between the RUF and al-Qaeda. Melrose told the subcommittee he had information that diamonds mined by the RUF, at least in part during Sierra Leone's ten-year civil war, were currently being sold in Guinea to raise funds for the RUF in Sierra Leone's upcoming elections. Melrose noted that the illicit trade in "conflict diamonds," blamed for fueling wars in Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, was yet to be brought under control. Despite a certificate of origin system having been put in place in Sierra Leone, he said, only a portion of Sierra Leonean diamonds are sold through legitimate channels. Several countries which produce no diamonds still export stones. And despite a United Nations embargo on Liberian diamonds, Melrose added, industry sources acknowledge that gemstones are still arriving in Europe from Liberia.

For the past decade, Sierra Leonean journalist Fode Kande has published his Sierra Leone Progress newspaper in exile, working from his New York apartment to keep Sierra Leonean expatriates in the United States abreast of what is happening in their country. Along the way, he has organised fundraisers for displaced Sierra Leoneans, while the proceeds from his annual Progress Awards Night galas have gone to assist Sierra Leonean students with their tuition. But now Kande is turning to his readers for a different reason: Ten months ago he suffered kidney failure, and he needs a transplant that will save his life. The cost of the operation is estimated at $175,000. His insurance covers only $125,000 of the cost, and now Kande is appealing to his readers to help him make up the difference — and to save his life. In 1978, after receiving a master's degree in journalism and international relations from Marshall University in West Virginia, Kande returned home to found his newspaper in Freetown. It didn't last. In 1992, the new NPRC government demanded that newspapers post a bond of five million leones or close down. "They didn’t look at somebody’s experience or qualification — just the money," Kande said. "Some of us had the qualifications and everything. In fact at the time I was one of the few with a masters degree in journalism. But because somebody in the NPRC didn’t like my guts, they said ‘let’s try and frustrate this man. He’s got to pay his money to register before we can allow him to print.’ They had already made up their mind who and who would operate." Unable to raise the money, Kande returned to the United States and continued to publish his newspaper in exile, aimed at a new readership, the Sierra Leonean expatriate community. Fellow Kabala native Hadi Bah praised Kande for his community activism. "In a society where everybody is so busy, the Progress newspaper has been the glue that has kept the Sierra Leonean community together," said Bah, who now lives in Boston. "You might say that the Progress newspaper brought Sierra Leone to Sierra Leoneans in the U.S.A." Kande says he makes a living from the newspaper's circulation of 5,000, but just barely. "I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel," he said. "I wish I can have more because now I have two kids. They’re growing up. One is going to five, one is going to three. That 5,000 is enough for me and my wife, you know." Because of his medical condition which requires him to go for dialysis three times a week, Kande has not been able to publish his newspaper since the middle of last year. "Since August I’ve not published," he said, adding: "I hope to resume next week, because I want the paper to be out before the elections." [Donations can be sent to Fode B. Kande at 1166 Grand Concourse #22B, Bronx, New York, 10456, U.S.A.]

13 February: The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has begun repatriating Sierra Leonean refugees wanting to escape new clashes between government forces and insurgents in Liberia, the BBC reported. A first group of 300 returnees has officially crossed the border, and the agency said groups of 300 to 400 will be repatriated on alternate days. The refugees will be were due to leave camps in Sinje, about 20 miles from the Liberian capital Monrovia. Thousands of other Sierra Leonean refugees, along with many displaced Liberians, have crossed the border on their own. In an interview with the BBC on Wednesday, Sierra Leonean Foreign Minister Ahmed Ramadan Dumbuya (pictured right) said that the influx of refugees into was likely to create a "double headache" for Sierra Leone. "Before that we had a problem, because as a result of the peace dividend many Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia, in Guinea, wanted to come back home," he said. "And we had succeeded to negotiate with the UNHCR to repatriate them. So in fact we are already expecting an influx of Sierra Leonean refugees. Now that that problem is going to be compounded by Liberians running away from the conflict in Liberia, it’s really going to be very, very serious for us." Dumbuya, who is currently in London, said there was no question of Sierra Leone turning the Liberian refugees away. "We will receive them," he said. "We are a state party to the UNHCR convention so we are obliged to receive them. The only thing, we’re taking stringent steps to make sure that no armed dissidents, cross over to come and cause more trouble in our own country." 

A coalition of seven international organizations and human rights groups issued a report card on the Kimberly Process Wednesday, giving governments and diamond industry groups high marks for good intentions, but an overall failing grade for their lack of progress in curbing the trade in illicit "conflict diamonds." Since May 2000, officials from diamond producing and importing nations, together with representatives of the diamond industry, have held a series of meetings aimed at designing a global certification system which would bring under control the illegal diamond trade, blamed for fueling wars in Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The proposed system, which will be debated at the last Kimberly Process meeting in Ottawa next month, "currently lacks enough provisions to make it effective," the groups said in a joint statement. In an interview with the Sierra Leone Web, Ian Smillie (pictured left) of Partnership Africa Canada pointed to four issues left unresolved at last November's Kimberly Process meeting in Botswana. "One of them was statistics, another one was this very weak provision for monitoring, another is a coordination mechanism, and then some governments are concerned about WTO (World Trade Organisation) and whether or not this thing is going to be in contravention with WTO," he said. Smillie, who served on the U.N. Panel of Experts which investigated the link between the illicit diamond trade and arms smuggling in Sierra Leone, attributed the current lack of progress to "bureaucratic intransigence" and the fact that several of the countries involved didn't see the point of the exercise. "Some governments are treating this as kind of an abstract issue rather than an issue that affects human lives," he said. "They see it as a trade issue rather than as a security issue." Smillie noted that the United Nations General Assembly was set to debate a draft resolution on conflict diamonds within the next few weeks, and he expressed hope that this might "prod the Kimberly Process to do the right thing" at their Ottawa meeting. And Smillie warned that as long as conflict diamonds continued to infect the legitimate diamond business, the whole industry could be in jeopardy. "You can’t have a business where part of the business is involved in fueling wars," he said. "It wouldn’t matter whether it was the automobile business or the television business or anything else. It would bring it down. I think that’s what the industry should be concerned about, and I think the industry is concerned about that."

The Community Arms Collection and Destruction Programme has received a positive response in most areas of the country but has lagged behind in Kono, Police Inspector-General Keith Biddle said on Tuesday. The programme was designed to collect those arms — primarily shotguns — which did not fall under Sierra Leone's recently-completed disarmament programme because they are not generally considered to be weapons of war. Biddle was among those who spoke at the official opening of the recently rehabilitated Tankoro Police Station in Koidu. Alan Doss (pictured left), the U.N. Deputy Special Representative for Governance and Stabilisation, stressed that the police station, which was rebuilt by ex-combatants with funds contributed by the Japanese government, was only a beginning. Schools, clinics and local government offices in the devastated city also needed to be rebuilt, he said. According to a UNAMSIL statement, Doss said the police had "an extremely important responsibility to help consolidate peace and restore democracy, especially as we go towards elections." There are currently more than 200 police officers deployed in Koidu.

The RUF has fulfilled the requirement that it have party offices in the provincial headquarters towns of Makeni, Bo and Kenema will submit its registration papers to the National Electoral Commission next week, RUF Political and Peace Council chairman Omrie Golley (pictured right) told the Sierra Leone Web on Wednesday. Among those whose names will likely appear on the document are the RUF Party's acting secretary-general, Pallo Bangura, its treasurer Patrick Beinda, and its National Organising Secretary Benson Conteh.

Liberian Information Minister Reginald Goodridge urged the United Nations Wednesday to lift sanctions on his country, imposed a year ago for the Liberian government's alleged support for Sierra Leone's RUF rebels, and for its involvement in the illegal arms-for-diamonds trade in the sub-region. "The reason for which the sanctions were imposed no longer exist," he told the Voice of America. "There has been disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration in Sierra Leone. The crisis has successfully ended, and so the reason for the sanctions no longer exist and it's only normal that these sanctions should be lifted." Last week the Liberian government declared a state of emergency after insurgent forces struck close to the capital, causing tens of thousands of persons — among them thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees — to flee their homes. Goodridge insisted that the attack was an "aberration" by what he called "a band of terrorists running around the forest." Meanwhile, Sierra Leonean Foreign Minister Ahmed Ramadan Dumbuya told the BBC Wednesday that his government opposed all armed dissident movements in the sub-region. "(Dissidents) pretend at any particular time to be at the service of somebody," he said. "But eventually after they’ve done in any government, you look the next instance where they’re going to emerge...We just condemn dissidents of whatever kind, because we believe they’re against any legitimate government." The Liberian government has suggested in recent days that Sierra Leoneans might be backing LURD, the main insurgent movement fighting government forces in the northwest of the country. Dumbuya responded that mercenaries of "all kinds of nationalities" had fought alongside the RUF in Sierra Leone's civil war, and he acknowledged it was possible that Sierra Leoneans could be fighting in Liberia. "They are fortune hunters just looking for where there is trouble," he said. "They are for hire, so I wouldn’t be surprised. But it wouldn’t be an official policy." The foreign minister said his government would apprehend any Sierra Leoneans caught backing Liberia rebels, "because that will be a breach of our own laws." But he noted that so far, the Liberian government had not reported capturing any Sierra Leoneans among the LURD dissident group.

12 February: With 96 signatures and 14 ratifications, the U.N.'s Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children and Armed Conflict came into force Tuesday, aimed at halting the use of child soldiers in conflicts around the world. More than 5,000 children are believed to have fought on all sides in the decade-long Sierra Leone conflict, the majority of them with the RUF rebels. Worldwide, as many as 300,000 children under the age of 18 are thought to be fighting in some 40 different conflicts. At a ceremony in Geneva, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson (pictured right) said the treaty was the culmination of years of effort "to fight one of the major causes of human rights violations in the world."  "There can no longer be any excuses for using children in war," she said. Robinson recalled meeting with child soldiers during her June 1999 visit to Sierra Leone. "This is a day to remember their lack of childhood, the terrible lessons they learned from adults, the lifelong mark that it makes on every child," she said.

Any exit strategy for the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) must provide for an adequate period for the consolidation of peace, supported by a significant UNAMSIL troop presence in order to sustain the prevailing secure and stable environment in the country, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guehenno was quoted as saying on Monday. Guehenno told the U.N. Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations, which began its 2002 session on Monday, that the U.N. would provide support for Sierra Leone's elections this May in the critical areas of security, logistics, technical support, and electoral monitoring. After the elections, he said, incomplete aspects of the peace process would have to be addressed — principally the restoration of government authority throughout the country, the restoration of governmental control over diamond mining, the reintegration of former combatants into society, the repatriation and resettlement of refugees and the internally displaced, and support for efforts towards national reconciliation and accountability for atrocities committed during the conflict.

The British government has signalled it is preparing to regulate mercenaries and so-called private security companies nearly four years after a U.K. firm, Sandline International, attempted to ship millions of dollars worth of arms to forces supporting Sierra Leone's then-exiled civilian government — the so-called "Arms to Africa Affair" — in apparent violation of a U.N. arms embargo, the Reuters news agency reported. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (pictured left) published a consultative Green Paper on Tuesday asking for the views of interested parties before legislation is passed, but a government source was quoted as saying that Straw favoured licensing private military companies for weapons contracts they win. Meanwhile, the man at the centre of the 1998 Arms to Africa Affair, former British High Commissioner Peter Penfold (right), returned to Sierra Leone for a visit last week for the first time since his stint in Freetown ended in May 2000. Penfold, who acknowledged he was aware of the arms deal between President Kabbah and Sandline International, took much of the blame for the British role. He was recalled to London for questioning, and eventually given an official reprimand which effectively ended his diplomatic career. In Sierra Leone, however, it was a different story. Upon his return to Freetown in June 1998 he was carried through the streets of the capital in a hammock and named an honourary paramount chief for his support for the country's civilian government. Now retired after 40 years at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Penfold told the BBC on Friday that allegations he had not kept his London office informed of Sandline's plans were not true. "I went into the Foreign Office the day afterwards and I handed over that document to the department, so that they then had the full information," he told the BBC. Penfold said it was his understanding, and the understanding of the Foreign Office, that the U.N. arms embargo applied only to the AFRC junta and not to the exiled civilian government. "It was a very clear view of President Kabbah and myself, and certainly the view that had been passed on to me from everybody, that the sanctions order applied to the provision of arms for the rebels, and not for the provision of arms to the legitimate government of Sierra Leone, which was outside of Sierra Leone, in Conakry," he said. "(The Foreign and Commonwealth Office) also had a copy of my reports that I sent...clearly showing that arms and equipment were part of this agreement. I also attached a number of documents which had issued from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which clearly showed that, from reading these documents, the understanding of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was that the sanctions did not apply to President Kabbah." Penfold was reprimanded, he said, because his superiors felt he had become too close to the Sierra Leone government and was no longer representing the interests of Britain. Speaking in Freetown, Penfold said he felt "tremendously good" to be back. "I feel really good inside," he said. "Part of me never left Sierra Leone after all that time, so I'm just reconnecting with what was left behind, and it is good to come back at this time, when I think there's more optimism around."

11 February: More than two million Sierra Leoneans may have registered to vote during the just-ended registration exercise, National Electoral Commission chairman Walter Nicol (pictured left) told the U.N. Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN). Voter registration closed on Saturday, three days later than was originally planned. Nicol said the target had been to register about 2.7 million people at about 4,910 centers nationwide ahead of next May's presidential and parliamentary elections. Final figures are not yet in but, Nicol said, "I can safely say, probably slightly over two million people have registered." BBC Freetown correspondent Lansana Fofana said both opposition and independent monitors had pointed to anomalies in the registration process, such as the registration of persons under the legal voting age of 18. "I myself saw and spoke to some of these minors who had registered with indelible ink on their thumbnails as well as photo IDs in their possession," Fofana said. Radio France International correspondent Kelvin Lewis pointed to other complaints over the registration process, such as a lack of registration forms at some centers, and the fact that some villagers had to walk miles to register. But Lewis said that the three-day extension had seen "considerably more people registering." Nicol told IRIN there had been "no major problems" with the registration exercise, and that allegations by opposition parties of irregularities had not been substantiated. The next step, he said, would be to retrieve registration kits from the centres, including unused forms and indelible ink, and computerising the information to produce lists of eligible voters. These will be displayed for five days at the centre, and any objections or irregularities such as the registration of underage voters can be reported at the regional electoral office. Tens of thousands of refugees in neighbouring countries have not yet been registered, but Nicol said that returning refugees who hold a UNHCR identity card could still register "tentatively until a month before the election — 15 April." The country's current State of Emergency has so far prevented formal campaigning by Sierra Leone's numerous political parties, but the pro-government New Vision newspaper has hinted that President Kabbah plans to lift the emergency regulations later this month. Sierra Leone currently has 23 political parties registered or provisionally registered with the electoral commission, and others, such as the RUF's political party, are expected to register in the near future. This high number includes the thirteen parties which were registered prior to the 1996 elections, and several of those may not be planning to contest in 2002.

Thousands of panicked Sierra Leonean refugees are fleeing towards Liberia's border with Sierra Leone after government forces clashed with rebels near the Liberian capital Monrovia over the weekend, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. Some 5,000 refugees reached the border town of Jendema, where they were joined by displaced Liberians seeking refuge in Sierra Leone. By mid-morning Monday, the UNHCR had registered about 3,000 Liberians and more than 2,000 Sierra Leoneans, most of the latter from the Sinje Camps which have been cut off by the fighting. Some of the Liberians have already crossed to villages on the Sierra Leonean side of the border, where they are awaiting transport to the Jimmi Bagbo refugee camp in Sierra Leone's Southern Province. Many Sierra Leoneans from villages close to Jendema have also made their own way across the border, while others have requested UNHCR assistance in returning to their homes in Kailahun District. The UNHCR has sent ten trucks to Jendema to assist the Liberian refugees, and is requesting that UNAMSIL send additional trucks to transfer the Sierra Leonean returnees to their home areas. That operation will likely to begin on Tuesday.

The RUF, with government assistance, has secured a party office in Kenema, clearing a major hurdle in efforts by the rebel group to transform itself into a political party, RUF Political and Peace Council chairman Omrie Golley told the Sierra Leone Web by telephone from London.

9 February: President Kabbah, government ministers, United Nations officials and thousands of ordinary Sierra Leoneans were among those who turned out at Lungi on Saturday to welcome visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair during his brief stopover in Sierra Leone. The visit — the first by a British prime minister since Sierra Leone gained independence more than 40 years ago — came as part of Blair's five-day West African tour to promote his vision of a new partnership between Africa and the West ahead of next June's G-8 summit of industrialized nations in Canada. In recent years, Britain has provided diplomatic, military and financial support for Sierra Leone's civilian government as it fought to overcome RUF rebels and rebel soldiers in a decade-long conflict which has left the country devastated. Shortly after he arrived at Lungi International Airport, the prime minister met with some of the Britain's 360 troops stationed in Sierra Leone who are responsible for retraining and restructuring the country's beleaguered army. He also met with former combatants at the Lungi garrison. Blair, whose father once lectured at Freetown's Fourah Bay College, said the world must not turn away from Sierra Leone now that the country's decade-long civil war had finally ended. "We need to make sure that the international community support and help you in rebuilding Sierra Leone just as they did in ending the conflict," he said. "I believe that with the right help and assistance Sierra Leone has got a peaceful future before it." At the nearby village of Mahera, Blair, accompanied by President Kabbah, was greeted by traditional chiefs at a colourful ceremony which featured stilt walkers, fire-eaters, and dancers jumping through burning hoops. Although Sierra Leone had suffered "a long and bitter civil war," he said in a short address, Sierra Leoneans now needed to put the conflict behind them "and engage together in the great task of building Sierra Leone for the future as a nation of prosperity and stability."  "Sierra Leone had to be rescued and helped for the future," he said. "I can see that now when I meet these young people, formerly part of the rebel forces but now training to be part of the army of the government of Sierra Leone — an army committed not to civil conflict but to supporting the democratically elected government. We want to be your partners, making sure the process of government, of conserving the legal systems, the proper building blocks of any decent civil society, are put in place and allowed to grow." 

Britain is planning to cut its military force in Sierra Leone by more than half, from the current 360 soldiers to about 150, the Reuters news agency reported on Saturday, quoting British military officials. The soldiers would be part of the British-led International Military Advisory and Training Team (IMATT), which has been working to retrain and restructure Sierra Leone's army since the middle of 2000. "There are no plans to withdraw but clearly as the situation here develops and as stability and confidence increase...we will look at ways to draw down our assistance," said Brigadier Patrick Davidson-Houston, the commander of British troops in Sierra Leone. "There is still much work to be done within the Ministry of Defence and the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces by the international training team. I think we'll see them here, we'll see us here for some time to come."

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's report to the Security Council on the Special Court for Sierra Leone is expected by the end of the week, a spokesman for Annan said in New York on Monday. U.N. officials signed an agreement with the Sierra Leone government last month to establish a legal framework for the court's operation. The visiting team, from the U.N.'s Office of Legal Affairs, also looked into nuts-and-bolts concerns, such as choosing a venue for the court and making sure that the necessary logistics were in place for its operation.

8 February: The British government is likely to approve a £45 million ($64 million) aid package for Sierra Leone within weeks, the Reuters news agency reported on Friday, quoting unnamed British officials. The announcement came one day before what is expected to be just a two-hour visit by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to the war-torn West African country. "(The British) came to rescue us when we needed it most. This visit is a way for us to say thank you and discuss what is needed now to rebuild the country," presidential spokesman Septimus Kaikai (pictured left) was quoted as saying. "We had hoped his visit would be longer and he would stay the night. But this is only the beginning, and hopefully we'll get a second visit soon," he added. A source close to the Sierra Leone government told the Sierra Leone Web on Friday that Blair's short visit would include a traditional welcome at Mahera, to which a number of paramount chiefs had been invited. "I am sure we could have persuaded the Brits to have him spend at least one night in the country if we had decent accommodation for the eighty or so members of his entourage," the source said. Blair is also expected to meet briefly with British troops stationed in Sierra Leone.

Pallo Bangura, acting secretary-general of the RUF's yet to be registered political party, has called on Britain to act as a referee ahead of next May's presidential and parliamentary elections, the Reuters news agency reported on Friday. "We ask them to be neutral and pro-active, and not just be seen as protecting the government or the president," Bangura said. "They should acknowledge that things have changed. We are committed to peace now. However naughty your child has been, when he changes and becomes respectful, a pat on the back would help."

Representatives of ten donor countries and international institutions ended a weeklong visit to war-torn Sierra Leone Friday with pledges of aid to help the country recover from ten years of civil conflict, the Associated Press reported. "The devastation is phenomenal and humanitarian needs quite colossal," said British delegate David Scott. "We are ready to commit fresh resources to address these needs." Said Yannick Hingorani of Canada: "The message is clear to me that progress in peace has been made." During the past week, representatives from the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain, the European Union and the European Commission Humanitarian Office toured Kambia District in the north, Kono and Kailahun Districts in the east, and Pujehun District in the south to assess Sierra Leone's postwar needs. In particular, the donors focused on the the programme to reintegrate recently-disarmed former combatants, as well as reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts being undertaken by the National Recovery Committee.

Sierra Leone will face an acute food shortage if additional aid does not arrive quickly, the U.N. World Food Programme's director for the West African Region told the Reuters news agency in Rome on Friday. "We only have enough food until June," Manuel Aranda da Silva warned. "If we do not get pledges of food aid now, we will run out just after the elections which will have a dangerous effect on the political situation." Da Silva said the agency was feeding one million people in West Africa, but that the situation could worsen as displaced people returned home with nothing. "There are 400,000 people at risk in Sierra Leone, 350,000 in Guinea and 260,000 in Liberia," he said. "If we don't support the return of these people to normal life then we will create a social problem which could have a negative impact in the elections" scheduled for May. Da Silva said his agency needed about 53 tons of food aid, including cereals, pulses, oil and corn-soya blend, to assist returning Sierra Leonean refugees through the end of the year. "The total value of our program is $105 million of which we need $55 million now," he said.

Sierra Leone's footballers will face Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Morocco in their qualifying matches for the 2004 African Nations Cup, the Confederation of African Football announced on Friday. The winners of each of the 13 groups will automatically qualify for the finals in Tunisia, along with the host nation and the winner of Sunday's final in Bamako between Cameroon and Senegal. Complete Draw: Group One: Angola, Djibouti, Malawi and Nigeria. Group Two: Ethiopia, Guinea, Liberia and Niger. Group Three: Benin, Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia. Group Four: Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Congo and Mozambique. Group Five: Cape Verde Islands, Kenya, Mauritania and Togo. Group Six: Eritrea, Mali, Seychelles and Zimbabwe. Group Seven: Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Morocco and Sierra Leone. Group Eight: Gambia, Lesotho, Sao Tome and Principe, and either Cameroon or Senegal. Group Nine: Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and Swaziland. Group Ten: Egypt, Guinea Bissau, Madagascar and Mauritius. Group Eleven: Burundi, Ivory Coast and South Africa. Group Twelve: Algeria, Chad and Namibia. Group Thirteen: Ghana, Rwanda and Uganda.

Liberian President Charles Taylor declared a state of emergency in his country Friday, one day after shooting near Monrovia panicked tens of thousands of uprooted Liberians and Sierra Leonean refugees gathered at the town of Klay Junction, 22 miles north of the capital. "I hereby declare a state of emergency in the republic," Taylor said in a radio address quoted by the Reuters news agency. "To take this decision was a heavy task, but we are compelled to do it because of the circumstances...The arms embargo and the government's inability to fully cater to the economic and social well-being of its citizens warrant the declaration of a state of emergency. The national economy and security of the republic are threatened to the core...The state of emergency will be lifted only (when) circumstances which warranted this action are removed." The situation in the area is still unclear, with both the government and rebels from the group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) claiming to control the town. A LURD spokesman in Abidjan told Reuters that thousands of rebel fighters were poised to launch an attack on the capital and could be in Monrovia within a week, but there has been no independent confirmation of the group's claim. Witnesses told Reuters they saw heavily armed troops leaving Monrovia for Klay Junction late Thursday. Last month, tens of thousands of people, including an estimated 6,000 Sierra Leonean refugees, were forced to flee apparent fighting between LURD and government forces in the northwest. Many tried to make their way to Monrovia, only to be stopped by security forces at Klay Junction. Just Tuesday, the Liberian government allowed aid agencies to return to northwestern Liberia for the first time since the fighting began. In a BBC interview, Liberian Information Minister Reginald Goodridge said Taylor's declaration of a state of emergency was intended to send a message to Liberians and to the international community that his government intended to defend itself. Its purpose was not, he said, to silence government critics. "We expect all Liberians at this time to remain patriotic, to remain nationalistic, and to raise their voices and their actions against the dissidents that are coming," he said. "This government has been tolerant of criticism for a long time, but this is a new ball game now and we want to be sure that everyone supports this government’s actions in trying to beat back the rebel incursion."

7 February: The National Electoral Commission (NEC) announced Wednesday it will extend by three days the current voter registration exercise because of what it called "organisational problems" experienced during the first few days of registration. The exercise had been due to end on Thursday. A statement signed by NEC chairman Walter Nicol (pictured left) said the extension was in response to "demands made by the public," but it added that there would be no further extension. Nicol had previously stated that a fifteen-day registration period was mandated under Sierra Leone's electoral laws. But in an interview Thursday morning with Radio UNAMSIL, the NEC's Acting Principal Electoral Officer, Aiah Mattia, said that the decision to extend the registration period was taken "in good faith and in accordance with the law." He said there would be no further extension to avoid abuse of the exercise. Meanwhile, Nicol visited the towns of Makeni and Magburaka on Thursday to install a new election commissioner for the Northern Province and also to assess progress in the voter registration process. In an interview with the BBC, he said that Sierra Leonean refugees returning from neighbouring Guinea and Liberia would have until mid-April to register, provided they could show their UNHCR cards as proof of identity. The NEC had originally wanted to register refugees in the camps, Nicol said, but the host governments had rejected the proposal in fear that the exercise could incite violence. Responding to allegations of irregularities in the registration process, such as the issuing of voter identity cards to persons not of legal voting age, Nicol told the BBC that computerised registration records would be displayed for five days to give all parties the chance to reject illegal voters.

Liberia's foreign minister said Thursday he was disappointed that British Prime Minister Tony Blair would not be visiting Liberia this week as part of his five-day West African tour, the Associated Press reported. "The Liberian government is disappointed that the British prime minister has chosen to visit only Sierra Leone" and not Liberia and Guinea, Monie Captan said. Captan maintained that Blair's visit could have been an opportunity to ease tensions among the three Mano River Union states, where fighting in the border region between government and insurgent groups threatens to again destabilise the sub-region. Captan warned that Britain must not treat Sierra Leone's problems in isolation. "The conflict has a regional dimension," he said. Britain has been in the forefront recently of a campaign to isolate Liberia in the international community for its alleged support for Sierra Leone's RUF rebels and because of Liberian involvement in the illegal arms-for-diamonds trade. Liberia denies the allegations.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said Thursday that Nigeria's role in resolving Sierra Leone's civil war was an example of how African nations could contribute significantly to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's proposed partnership between Africa and the West. "What Africa is looking for from Britain is a better world. And if there’s a better world it will be a better world for Africa, it will be a better world for Britain; it will be a better world for all of us," Obasanjo said at the conclusion of Blair's one-day visit to the Nigerian capital, Abuja. "There may be times (such as) the situation in Sierra Leone, where we had to work together," he told reporters. "We had been there for years before Britain. And at the time when we came in, we spearheaded what is now known as Lomé Agreement. (After the) Lomé Agreement, we went to the U.N. And at a critical time, Britain came in. And because Britain came in at that time, U.N. was able to hold on. And today we can all claim success in Sierra Leone."

6 February: On the eve of his departure Wednesday for West Africa, British Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged that his country would continue to support Sierra Leone in its efforts to emerge from ten years of civil war. Britain currently has some 360 troops in Sierra Leone, working mainly to restructure and retrain Sierra Leone's army. "We can’t be sure of the exact time scale on (how long the troops will remain in Sierra Leone), but obviously this is a process of change where we’re helping the legitimate government of Sierra Leone develop its own instruments of security and policing," Blair said. "Obviously we’re working with them closely in doing that, and we will give whatever help we need to." The prime minister described Britain's involvement in Sierra Leone as "a success over what we had before," adding: "I think if you were to talk to most people in Sierra Leone they would be grateful that this change has come about." Blair, who according to the official Sierra Leone News Agency (SLENA) will make a two-hour stopover in Lungi on Saturday as part of a five-day West African tour which will also take him to Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, said Britain's intervention in Sierra Leone could be a model for conflict resolution in other parts of the world. "I think it is an example of where, if you put the right amount of political energy backed up by necessary force, then you can make a difference," he said. "And I think to that extent it gives us some lessons elsewhere, and I think it’s something the United Nations obviously is studying carefully. As you know there’s been a report by Brahimi — actually the man who’s working in Afghanistan now — but he gave a report to the U.N. some time ago on conflict resolution and how we helped produce a better ability to intervene in these situations as a world community. And I think Sierra Leone shows us that where such interventions are made they can be successful." According to SLENA, Blair will be met at Lungi International Airport by President Kabbah, cabinet ministers, and senior government officials. 

A delegation of representatives from Western donor nations and institutions visited the devastated city of Koidu on Tuesday, where they toured schools, hospitals, police stations which had been destroyed during the war, UNAMSIL said in a statement. The delegation was briefed by representatives of U.N. agencies and non-governmental organisations working in Kono District. Sarah Muscroft, the field coordinator for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, described the destruction in Kono District as "alarming" with a need to return more than 35,000 displaced persons to the area. Other members from the donor mission visited Kambia District in the north of the country. 

4 February: British Prime Minister Tony Blair is preparing to embark on a diplomatic mission to West Africa this week which will likely take him to Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, and possibly Sierra Leone, the Voice of America reported. The official Sierra Leone News Agency reported last month that Blair would visit Sierra Leone on February 8, but a British source subsequently told the Sierra Leone Web that the visit was in doubt. Details of the prime minister's itinerary were not being disclosed for security reasons, he said. A Sierra Leonean source said Sunday that the trip appeared to be still on, but would probably be limited to a couple of hours and "most probably not in the city of Freetown." Blair will reportedly be joined on his West African tour by International Development Secretary Clare Short and junior Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister Baroness Valerie Amos.

Sierra Leone's National Electoral Commission (NEC) responded on Monday to complaints registered last week by representatives of the country's opposition parties, who have described the current voter registration exercise as unconstitutional and demanded that it be suspended. During a demonstration on Thursday at the NEC's Wallace Johnson Street offices, the Council of Opposition Parties asserted that current NEC officials were not capable of conducting a free and fair election. According to the official Sierra Leone News Agency, which is located in the same building as the commission, the Council complained that the government had appointed electoral commissioners without consulting with all political party leaders, and suggested that NEC staff was biased against opposition parties. The Council also alleged that the NEC had failed to lay before parliament its regulations governing voter registration and the conduct of the forthcoming elections. Opposition leaders urged that sufficient time be allowed for persons displaced and Sierra Leone and refugees in neighbouring countries to return home and resettle properly before the registration exercise so that they would not be disenfranchised. In its response on Monday, NEC chairman Walter Nicol (pictured left) rejected what he called "the generalized allegation of ineptness attributed to" his commission, along with a 72-hour ultimatum by the opposition that the commission comply with their demands. Nicol insisted that his staff members were, to the best of his knowledge, independent and not supporters of any political party. He noted that several issues raised by the Council, such as extending the voter registration period and the appointment of commissioners, fell outside of the NEC's jurisdiction. Nicol said the NEC was dealing with logistical problems as they arose, and he insisted the commission had put in place "adequate structures" to promote registration and voting by internally displaced persons and refugees. On another opposition complaint over the NEC's decision to conduct the elections using the "District Block" system in place of an election by constituency as required by Article 38 of the constitution, Nicol responded that the practical difficulties the NEC faced in complying with this requirement had already been made public: "The principle one being that the commission is not in possession of any credible census of the country's population."

The Sierra Leone government has no plans to free imprisoned RUF rebel leader Foday Sankoh, Justice Minister and Attorney-General Solomon Berewa told Reuters correspondent Christo Johnson on Monday. Sankoh (pictured right) was named chairman of a strategic government minerals commission and protocol vice president under the 1999 Lomé Peace Accord. After the RUF resumed hostilities in May 2000 and seized more than 500 United Nations peacekeepers, Sankoh was detained under the country's emergency regulations. He is currently being held at a secret location, reportedly outside of Freetown. The rebel leader is widely believed to be a leading candidate for prosecution by the Special Court, formally established in Freetown last month to try those deemed to bear the greatest responsibility for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone. Berewa indicated that the government was seeking ways to keep Sankoh in detention even after the state of emergency is lifted. "The government is working out a strategy that would enable it to have the RUF leader remain in detention," he said. "We have even received warnings from countries like the United States and other Western countries against him being released." The rebel group is trying to transform itself into a political party, and some RUF officials had said that Sankoh would be their party's presidential candidate. But National Electoral Commission chairman Walter Nicol told Reuters that Sankoh could not seek election while in detention because he would personally have to fill in the forms to register as a candidate. "The electoral laws of Sierra Leone do not have any provision for presidential candidates to be nominated in absentia," he said. 

Aside from a few minor logistical problems, voter registration is proceeding smoothly, the U.N. Deputy Special Representative for Governance and Stabilisation, Alan Doss, said in Pujehun over the weekend. Doss (pictured left) said UNAMSIL was happy so many Sierra Leoneans had registered, and he urged others to do so before registration ends on February 7. Earlier, at a press briefing in Freetown on Friday, Doss told reporters it was still early to make an assessment as to the overall success of the registration exercise. "We are only half-way through the registration process; we still have another week to go," he said. "We saw that things were a bit slow, there were logistical difficulties, not all the materials were where they should be on day one, and some polling stations opened late. There have been difficulties. The initial says, from what I could see, were a bit slow, but it is picking up." Doss stressed that the success of the exercise was the responsibility of Sierra Leoneans, with the United Nations playing a supporting role. "If people don't register, they can't vote," he said. "Even when they register they don't always vote. At least let's get to the starting gate." Meanwhile, the U.N. announced Monday it had embarked on an mass information campaign to educate Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea on their options for registering and participating in the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. The campaign, which began on February 2, is being conducted by U.N. agencies, the National Electoral Commission and the National Commission for Social Action. It will cover all refugee camps in Guinea, and will focus on educating Sierra Leoneans about the peace and electoral processes, including the registration of voters to be undertaken inside Sierra Leone. It will also provide information about the registration timetable for returning refugees and conditions for voluntary refugees, and UNAMSIL's role before, during and after the elections. 

The U.N. Secretary-General's Special Representative in Sierra Leone, Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji, appealed to representatives of donor nations Monday for financial assistance to help the Sierra Leone government restore its authority throughout the country, to reintegrate former combatants into society, and to resettle displaced persons and returning refugees. According to a UNAMSIL statement, Adeniji told the delegates, who are on a week-long visit to Sierra Leone, that the country had "turned a bend as far as the peace process is concerned." But he warned that the road ahead was fraught with challenges which, if not addressed, could lead to further complications. Adeniji said the restoration of government authority was not proceeding satisfactorily because the government lacked the capacity to carry it through. "The government needs to be assisted to extend its authority and extend it fast," he said. 

Liberian Defence Minister Daniel Chea has warned that his country's army is incapable of withstanding rebel forces in northern and northwestern Liberia because of a United Nations arms embargo. A broadened ban on weapons imports to Liberia was among a number of sanctions the Security Council imposed on the Liberian government nearly a year ago for its alleged backing of Sierra Leone's RUF rebels, and for its involvement in the illegal arms-for-diamonds trade in the sub-region. "Of course this government is capable, but this government is also shorthanded," Chea told the BBC. "With the imposition of sanctions on the one hand and slapped with an arms embargo, this government is in no way in an adequate position to equip her armed forces to deal with it. Of course if they could lift the arms embargo...I would tell the Liberian people with the situation now, you give them one month and we’ll end the war. But we are basically going up there and have to make due with what we can lay our hands on from captured weapons, whereby the dissidents have overwhelming support, extensive support." Chea claimed since the fighting began in mid-1999, over 1,000 government soldiers had been killed by dissident forces.

2 February: Representatives from donor countries and international institutions began arriving in Sierra Leone at the weekend for a week-long visit to evaluate the needs of the country following ten years of civil conflict, UNAMSIL said on Friday. During the next week, delegates from the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain, the European Union and the European Commission Humanitarian Office (ECHO) will tour Sierra Leone's northern Kambia District as well as Kono and Kailahun Districts in the east and Pujehun District in the south. Alan Doss, the U.N. Deputy Special Representative for Governance and Stabilisation, said funds were needed to rebuild thousands of homes, clinics, hospitals and government offices. "The United Nations is anxious that Sierra Leone remains on the international radar screen and to ensure that the country has access to the resources that it needs to help rebuild and sustain the momentum toward peace," he said on Friday. Money will also be needed to repatriate the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons and refugees who were forced to flee their homes due to the war. "The needs are substantial and I do not want to quantify them as yet, until the end of the visit, but include $89 million of humanitarian assistance," Doss said. He added that the donors would focus their attention on the reintegration of recently-disarmed former combatants and the reconstruction and rehabilitation work being undertaken by the National Recovery Committee. Last November, in its Consolidated Interagency Appeal, the United Nations asked for $88.6 million for Sierra Leone to address relief requirements for the war-torn country.

1 February: New fighting last weekend in Liberia's Bomi County caused tens of thousands of displaced Liberians, among them thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees, to flee toward the Liberian capital Monrovia. In recent days the situation has calmed, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said in Geneva. UNHCR staff were able to travel through the area each day to the Sinje Camp, in the adjacent Grand Cape Mount County, home to 17,000 Sierra Leoneans who fled the war in their own country. "A wave of panic initially swept through the camp when reports of the nearby fighting reached Sinje, prompting many people to prepare to return to Sierra Leone," the spokesman said. "By Tuesday, however, there was a general relaxation of the atmosphere after people were reassured that the fighting would not reach the camp. No mass departures were recorded." In an interview with the BBC, Liberian Information Minister Reginald Goodridge said what had been described as fighting was really rebels firing their weapons into the air, and he blamed them for causing the exodus of residents from the area in order to loot their property. "They came into the area, caused some commotion, [and] fired into the air," he told Voice of America correspondent Luis Ramirez. "They created panic, and movement of people. And then they carried on whatever operation they came for, whether it's to loot food, to supply themselves, or whatever. So there was no actual combat in the Tubmanburg area, but it was simply out of fear that caused people to flee the area." There has been no independent confirmation of the claim. Meanwhile, the UNHCR is speeding up preparations to repatriate the refugees to Sierra Leone. A pre-registration campaign conducted in Liberia's six camps ended on Thursday with a total of 6,198 persons pre-registered for return. More than half of them come from Sierra Leone's devastated Kailahun District. 

A government investigative committee has been set up to look into circumstances surrounding the death of Anniemaude Cole, the winner of the Miss Sierra Leone beauty pageant, the official Sierra Leone News Agency reported. Cole died last week from burns she suffered when a kerosene lamp apparently ignited her flammable nightgown. Local newspapers have quoted the 22-year old beauty queen as denying speculation that she tried to take her own life, or that she had been the victim of domestic abuse. According to the Concord Times, Cole told police shortly before her death that it had been an accident. According to a government statement, a cabinet subcommittee will also investigate why the pageant committee failed to award Cole the prizes due her, and question the reason the committee decided to replace her for the Miss ECOWAS pageant in Bamako, Mali.

Exchange rates for the leone against the U.S. dollar and pound sterling, posted in Freetown on Friday: [Buying / Selling] Standard Chartered Bank: [$] 2205 / 2345. [£] 2615 / 3175. Commercial Bank: [$] 2150 / 2300. [£] 2950 / 3275. Frandia: [$] 2150 / 2250 [£] 2700 / n.a. Continental: [$] 2150 / 2450 [£] 2800 / 3500.