The Sierra Leone Web


February 2003

28 February: The United Nations Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Children and Armed Conflict warned this week that, without the prospect of jobs or education, Sierra Leone's youth could be a source of instability in the country which is just emerging from a decade of civil war, Radio France International reported. "This is a group of persons who are there as a kind of potential force to be molded in any direction," Olara Otunnu told reporters. "They could become bad criminal gangs. They could be recycled back into conflict" in Liberia and Ivory Coast. "They remain a potential danger to themselves and to society, which is why it is so important to find productive means to engage them." During his week-long visit to Sierra Leone which ended on Friday, Otunnu launched the Voice of the Children, a U.N.-sponsored radio station run by young people, and, together with President Kabbah, inaugurated the Commission for War-Affected Children. He also visited the devastated mining city of Koidu. Otunnu observed that in Koidu, "everybody has been chipping in" to rebuild the schools, but that much more still needed to be done. But despite the primitive conditions of some of the school buildings, he said, it was better for the children to be there than to be mining diamonds. "I wish (the children) were not sitting on rocks, but I’m happy that they are in a class," he said. "There’s a teacher and there’s a blackboard. That they’re not on the street. They are not in the mines." Otunnu, who earlier met with child labourers in Kono's alluvial diamond mines, said he was horrified by what he saw there. He stressed that "something radical" had to be done to address the problem. "I cannot believe that in this day and age so many children have been forced to slave away in the diamond mines, earning next to nothing and not attending school because they don’t have adequate opportunities," he said. "When I spoke to the children and to the young people, none of them wanted to be in the mines. Every single one of them wanted to be in school, wanted vocational training and they all said, ‘we need alternatives'."

The World Bank approved $40 million in grants to Sierra Leone this week aimed at rehabilitating the country's war-ravaged health and educational sectors. The first of the two $20 million grants will be used to help restore what the bank called "the most essential functions of the health delivery system of Sierra Leone." The money will be used to rebuild primary and first referral health services in four districts, to improve programmes responsible for addressing the country's major health problems, to strengthen health sector management to improve efficiency and to decentralize decision-making to the districts, and to support the development of the private health care sector. The second $20 million grant will seek to provide basic education for the majority of Sierra Leone's children through the rebuilding or refurbishing of damaged primary and junior secondary schools. The World Bank grant complements a $20.32 million loan and $1.35 million grant from the African Development Bank to Sierra Leone in January to finance the rehabilitation of the country's basic, non-formal and vocational education. In announcing the grant Tuesday, the World Bank said the money would be used to fund basic education by reconstructing damaged schools and building new ones, and to provide teachers and educational materials. The Bank says it also wants to assure an operational quality level of the schools, to build up management capacity in the educational sector, and to develop a partnership with the government and civil society to provide educational opportunities to Sierra Leone's young people.

Renewed fighting in Liberia has resulted in a major influx of Liberian refugees into Sierra Leone, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) said on Friday. As of Sunday, approximately 9,000 Liberians and a few hundred Sierra Leoneans had crossed the border, and as many as 17,000 more could arrive in the next few weeks. "If that should occur, the ability of the humanitarian community to respond effectively, given the current level of resources, would be severely handicapped," the agency said. Between February 10 and 23, the WFP supported 120,400 people in Sierra Leone with 733 tons of food, distributed through a number of programmes for vulnerable adults and children, and food-for-training and safety net schemes. 

27 February: In late February 1996 the Sierra Leone Web made its first appearance on the internet with the launch of a news page, an online e-mail directory, and a collection of 400 Krio proverbs. Sierra Leone was then in the midst of a brutal civil war – a conflict which seldom made headlines in the international press and so went nearly unnoticed outside the country's borders. The Sierra Leone Web turns seven years old this week. Still best known for its news page, the Sierra Leone Web offers readers and researchers much more: scores of documents, hundreds of photographs, an e-mail directory of more than 2,100 names, and sections on culture, government and literature. It also hosts, for free, the website of Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Over the past few years the Sierra Leone Web has done groundbreaking stories, including interviews with national leaders in Freetown and RUF commanders in rebel-held territory in an effort to understand, and to help readers to understand, the underlying causes of a decade of conflict which devastated this once-peaceful country. Throughout its existence, the Sierra Leone Web has worked to provide uncompromisingly objective and accurate news coverage in the belief that Sierra Leone's story is not just worth telling: It is a story which must be told.

The deployment to Freetown last week of some 300 British Gurkha troops "will show the people of Sierra Leone that we are committed to carry on our support to them and their democratically elected government, even at a time when people may perceive that the U.K.'s Armed Forces are busy in other areas of the world," Task Force Commander Brigadier Bill Moore said in a statement. A spokesman for the British High Commission told the Sierra Leone Web last week that the deployment of the Spearhead Lead Element from the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Gurkha Rifles, was a demonstration of the 'over-the-horizon' reserve force which was agreed in a June 1999 Memorandum of Understanding between the U.K. and the United Nations. While in Sierra Leone, the British soldiers will train alongside Sierra Leonean troops. It will also assist the British-led International Military Advisory and Training Team (IMATT) which is working to produce a professional and democratically-accountable army in Sierra Leone. The land forces will be joined by a British frigate, the HMS Iron Duke, and an accompanying support vessel. The exercise is expected to last for approximately one month.

The Chief Prosecutor of Sierra Leone's Special Court addressed members of the military Thursday and assured them that the war crimes tribunal's investigations would focus only on "those bearing the greatest responsibility" for violations of international humanitarian law, and not on the rank and file in the military. "While I believe that accountability is the cornerstone to democracy and a sustainable peace, the mandate given to me by the international community asks me to only prosecute those who bear the greatest responsibility," Crane said, adding: "I do encourage citizens to talk to Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whether they be victims or perpetrators." According to a statement issued by the court, Crane told the forty-plus soldiers and civilian members of the Ministry of Defence that "national, regional, and international" were continuing. "I want our work to be absolutely thorough," he said. "These cases are rather complex and I've instructed my staff to follow the evidence wherever it leads." He added that investigations would likely continue through the rainy season.

26 February: Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has received in excess of 3,500 statements from both victims and the perpetrators in the country's decade-long civil war, TRC Executive-Secretary Franklyn Bai Kargbo said on Wednesday. Kargbo told the Sierra Leone Web that the commission's three-week pilot phase in December netted about 1,400 statements and revealed more than 3,000 violations against individuals and communities. The process continued in January and February. "The statement-taking phase will extend to the 31st of March," he said. "We are now preparing the hearing stage." Kargbo said he met Wednesday with Eldred Collins of the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP) over a submission by the former rebel group which was deemed to be inadequate. "We’ve given them guidance as to the format and details of what we expect them to tell us," he said. "They are quite willing to cooperate with us, and we meet with them again on Friday morning. This time they’ll form a delegation of about four to five key people. We’ll emphasize to them the importance of cooperating in terms of giving us a statement and lining up for public hearings." Kargbo is due to meet with potential donors in Geneva this weekend at a forum arranged by the U.N.'s Office of the High Commission for Human Rights to add to the cash-strapped commission's coffers. He added that he had received generally positive responses from meetings in Freetown this week with the American ambassador, members of the Lebanese Committee, and the visiting U.N. Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu. "(Otunnu) also urged in particular that we pay special emphasis on children as they were affected by the war," Kargbo said. "Indeed that has been one of the planned fanatic aspects that we hope the report will reveal."

The U.N. Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Children and Armed Conflict expressed dismay Wednesday over the number of children working in Kono's diamond fields, the Associated Press reported. "I was horrified to see children mining for diamonds – in this day and age, so many children forced to slave away in diamond mines," Olara Otunnu told reporters after a tour of Koidu. "It was a terrible scene." Otunnu urged the setting up of micro-credit schemes and other aid programmes for the families of child miners, and for help in putting the boys in school. Otunnu noted, however, significant improvements over his last visit a year and a half ago, when families were still emerging from hiding in the bush. "I saw some children going to school – even though some of them are sitting on rocks and logs – but they are happy, singing, playing and in uniforms," he said.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has agreed to a waiver of its rules to allow for a global ban on the trade in "conflict diamonds" – the alluvially-mined and illicitly-traded gemstones which have been blamed for fuelling wars in Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Associated Press reported. "Trade in conflict diamonds is a matter of serious international concern, which can be directly linked to the fueling of armed conflict, the activities of rebel movements aimed at undermining or overthrowing legitimate governments, and the illicit traffic in, and proliferation of, armaments, especially small arms and light weapons," the WTO said in a statement. The organisation said it based its decision on what it called "the extraordinary humanitarian nature of this issue and the devastating impact of conflicts fueled by the trade in conflict diamonds on the peace, safety and security of people in affected countries." The waiver request was sponsored by an 11-member group of nations led by Canada, backed by Sierra Leone, Australia, Brazil, Israel, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. It creates an exception to a founding principle of the 145-nation body, which is that a government must offer the same conditions to all its trading partners, and may not refuse to accept goods from one country that it accepts from another.

25 February: President Kabbah formally inaugurated a National Commission for War-Affected Children Monday, calling it "one of the most far-reaching decisions we have made for the future of this nation." The commission was set up at the urging of Olara Otunnu, the U.N. Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, who is visiting Sierra Leone this week. Thousands of Sierra Leone's children who were abducted by warring factions and forced to become fighters, porters or sex-slaves still bear the physical and emotional scars of the war. Hundreds of thousands more spent years of their young lives as refugees. In his address, Kabbah called the commission a "concrete symbol" of the government's commitment to war-affected children, but he stressed that it would need financial and material resources in order to succeed. "If it is not afforded adequate financial resources for its operation; if it fails to secure the support of our development partners, it will be a commission only in name," the president said. "In fact, one can venture to say that these would be tantamount to a collective infringement of the basic human rights of the war-affected children."

The United States Embassy Freetown announced Tuesday the launch of a website to provide information directly from the Sierra Leonean capital. The new site includes embassy contact information, press releases, transcripts of speeches by Ambassador Peter Chaveas, reports, country information and photographs. 

Ghanaian security forces raided the Buduburam Refugee Camp outside of Accra Sunday, looking for evidence to substantiate allegations that the camp was being used to recruit fighters for conflicts in Liberia and Ivory Coast, the Voice of America reported. The camp is home, officially, to some 27,000 refugees, most of them Liberian but also including "an appreciable number of Sierra Leoneans," a former Sierra Leonean refugee told the Sierra Leone Web. "We used to visit the camp to eat Sierra Leonean dishes at a Sierra Leonean woman's 'cookery shop'," he added. Unofficially, the camp may house thousands more people. In the early hours of Sunday morning, soldiers surrounded the camp while policemen, accompanied by sniffer dogs, searched the homes for weapons and drugs. The military officer in charge of the operation said his forces had found what he said was a training ground for fighters, but apart from one gun found in the possession of a man claiming to be a Ghanaian, no firearms were found. "Out of 16,000 adult males identified during the headcount, about 2,000 had not registered as refugees," the radio said. "Those were handed over to immigration officers to be questioned and, where appropriate, registered. The UNHCR office in Ghana said today however that they have heard rumours of rebel recruitment at Buduburam, but they have no evidence of systematic enlistment or training at the camp." The camp was established in 1990 to house refugees from Liberia's civil war. In recent years it has been a thorn in the side of the Ghanaian authorities, who say it has become a breeding ground for crime, including armed robbery, drug peddling and prostitution.

24 February: A Sierra  Leonean lawyer and children's rights advocate has been named one of five winners of this year's Reebok Human Rights Award. Mohamed Pa-Momo Fofanah witnessed first-hand the horrors of Sierra Leone's civil war. He saw children forced to become combatants and commit violent crimes against their neighbours. And he decided to do something about it. In 1998, after being admitted to the bar, he joined the Sierra Leonean office of Defence for Children International, and provided free legal counsel to young people who were arbitrarily detained and arrested, and to children who had suffered abuse and rape. He also worked to reform the juvenile justice system and to ensure children's rights in the judicial process. In 2001 he was one of the founders of the Lawyers Centre for Legal Assistance (LAWCLA), which offers free legal assistance to poor and vulnerable victims of human rights abuses. "In a country that has been ravaged by war, human rights atrocities, a collapsed economy and a fractured government, Pa-Momo is dedicated to the relentless pursuit of children’s rights and stands as a beacon of hope for Sierra Leone’s youth," Reebok said in announcing the award. Reebok, which is better known as a retailer of sports shoes, has presented the award each year since 1988 to human rights activists 30 years old or younger who have made significant contributions to human rights causes through non-violent means. The award comes with a $50,000 grant from the Reebok Human Rights Foundation to allow the winners to further their work. Since its inception, the award has gone to 76 activists in 35 countries. Fofanah is the first Sierra Leonean to win.

23 February: Olara Otunnu, the United Nations Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, visited Sierra Leone three times during the country's civil war to appeal for the protection of children. This week Otunnu is back to urge that children's issues be integrated into efforts to rebuild the peace. "Sierra Leone is a particularly important case of a conflict situation and a post-conflict situation in which children are being deeply affected," Otunnu told reporters in Freetown. "It had been a particular priority for us. In the middle of the conflict it was a question of protecting children and ensuring that they were not being victimized. Now in the post-conflict situation, we want to make sure that children are a central aspect of any programme of peacebuilding, reconstruction and healing." During his week-long visit, Otunnu will inaugurate two projects to benefit Sierra  Leone's youth: a National Commission on War-Affected Children, and a "Voice of Children," to provide radio programming to benefit young people. In both cases, he said, "Sierra Leone is the first country in which this has now become a functioning and operational project." Otunnu noted that the situation in Sierra Leone had improved significantly since his first visit several years ago. The war has ended, refugees have returned or are returning, and child soldiers have been demobilised and are being rehabilitated. "There is clearly a transformation relative to the situation several years ago," he said. "Now Sierra Leone is not out of the woods. There are major challenges that need to be faced and must address those continuing challenges in order consolidate the peace which is in formation now."

22 February: West African leaders would prefer a regional solution to the conflict in Ivory Coast, but lack the resources to carry it out, Sierra Leonean Foreign Minister Momodu Koroma said during the Franco-African Summit in Paris this week. "The ideal solution would have been to have ECOWAS troops on the ground," Koroma told Radio France International. "This is a conflict which threatens the region, and in the ideal case it is these regional forces that should actually bring the conflict to an end. Unfortunately, the situation is not ideal." After a military uprising last September plunged Ivory Coast into civil conflict, West African leaders pledged to send a 1,200 strong Senegalese-led ECOWAS peacekeeping force to the country by mid November. It never happened. Koroma said the reason was that ECOWAS simply does not have the resources. "Willing as the heads of state might be, the resources are not just there to deploy troops on the ground, to maintain them there, to ensure that they can have the relevant equipment to keep the peace," he said. "This is the problem that ECOWAS has. Any efficiency about ECOWAS therefore has to be measured within that light. But willingness is of course there, and I think a lot of meetings I have attended, the heads of state of ECOWAS have shown a lot of willingness to step in and really have a solution to the conflict."

21 February: A company of Gurkha soldiers from Britain's 2nd Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles has left London for Freetown in what Britain's Defence Ministry is calling "a demonstration of the United Kingdom's continuing military commitment to supporting the settlement process in Sierra Leone." A spokesman for the British High Commission in Freetown told the Sierra Leone Web that the deployment, including support personnel, would consist of about 300 people. "The deployment is intended as a demonstration of our 'over-the-horizon' reserve capability, underlining our continued support for settlement process here in Sierra Leone," he said. "A small deployment now to remind all concerned of the U.K.'s commitment, and our ability to deploy quickly notwithstanding our commitments elsewhere in the world, will help ensure that the situation here in Sierra Leone remains stable." He added that the exercise had been welcomed by President Kabbah and by UNAMSIL, the United Nations peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone. "The 'over-the-horizon' reserve is as a result of the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding the U.K. signed with the U.N. in June 1999," the spokesman said. "We could offer a rapid reaction capability of up to a brigade drawn from our pool of rapid reaction forces." The Times newspaper in London, quoting Ministry of Defence sources there, reported that the Gurkhas were being sent to Sierra Leone due to increasing security concerns following cross-border incursions by armed groups from neighbouring Liberia. While in Sierra Leone, the Gurkhas will work alongside the U.K.-led International Military Advisory and Training Team (IMATT), and will also link up with the Sierra Leone army and UNAMSIL. The deployment is expected to last until mid-March. Meanwhile, the British warship HMS Iron Duke (pictured right) will visit Freetown in the next few weeks "as a further demonstration of U.K. commitment," the spokesman said. The Iron Duke, a Type 23 frigate, is currently on the Atlantic Patrol Task (North).

Liberian government forces battled LURD rebels at the Sierra Leone border Friday in an effort to retake the strategic Mano River Bridge and the town of Bo Waterside, the Reuters news agency reported. "Fighting is going on in that area. Bo and Tiene are being strongly contested right now," Defense Minister Daniel Chea said. "LURD is present in that area and we are moving in to see how best we can dislodge them." At talks brokered by ECOWAS parliamentarians and civil society groups in Freetown this month, LURD dropped its preconditions for peace talks with the Liberian government. Meanwhile, however, the rebel group has launched offensives on four fronts aimed at toppling the government of President Charles Taylor. The United Nations refugee agency estimates that 36,000 people have been displaced in the latest fighting, with some 6,000 Liberian refugees crossing into Sierra Leone in recent days.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) wants to repatriate some 34,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea by the end of June, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The opening in March of a new route from Guinea's Languette, or "Parrot's Beak" into eastern Sierra Leone with a footbridge is expected to expedite the repatriation process.

Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has recorded the stories of some 3,500 war victims and perpetrators since its statement takers first fanned out across the country last December, the TRC's new Executive-Secretary said on Friday. Franklyn Bai Kargbo, who took up his post on Tuesday, told the Sierra Leone Web that the commission now hoped to begin public hearings in early April. The statements, which detail atrocities both committed and suffered during a decade of civil war, are confidential. But Kargbo said the hearings would highlight interviews which document a pattern of abuse. And the commission might go even further. "Part of our mandate allows us, if we deem it necessary, to have perpetrators and victims in some cases confront each other," he said. "I’m sure that will be a very useful tool." Kargbo added that the TRC would also work with local communities to help them heal the scars of the war. "In some cases, apart from the individual reconciliation cases, communities might need to be cleansed," Kargbo said. "The various groups in Sierra Leone have ways in which over the centuries they think some catastrophe that befell the community or society can be put in the past." He added the commission would, whenever possible, work to promote reconciliation through that traditional system. As the commission prepares to hire investigators, researchers and translators, it is looking at taking statements from Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea, Liberia, the Gambia and Ghana. The TRC would like to reach out to victims living in the West as well, he said – if it can get the funding. "Certainly we would want to move farther afield," he said. "That’s something to be explored." Kargbo will meet with international donors in Switzerland and the United States early next month. Meanwhile, Kargbo said he was working to heal a rift which had opened between the TRC and its local support base – Sierra Leone's civil society groups. "I think there was a misunderstanding there," he said. "The civil society organisations perceived the commission as having been derailed from the ownership concept that was originally designed to anchor the truth and reconciliation." Kargbo said he met this week with a number of civil society leaders to hear their concerns, and that several of the groups had now pledged to support the commission. "I’m sure in the coming weeks we should be able to successfully tap into this cooperation and collaboration by civil society organisations," he said. "Through that (we will) more effectively tap into local communities in getting them to participate in the process." 

In a ceremony on Monday to inaugurate the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's (TRC) new headquarters in Brookfields, U.N. Special Representative for Sierra Leone Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji (pictured left), said that about 1,400 people from all walks of life had provided information to TRC statement takers, according to UNAMSIL. TRC Chairman Bishop Joseph Humper (right) said the statements contained information "about 3,000 victims who had suffered more than 4,000 violations," including 1,000 deaths and 200 cases of rape and sexual abuse. He added that one third of the respondents were women and about ten percent were children. Humper was quoted as saying that the statement-taking would continue until March 31, which would be followed immediately by the "institutional hearing."

70,000 Liberian refugees have entered Sierra Leone since September 2000, and thousands more have continued to arrive in recent weeks to escape new fighting in their country, UNHCR Public Information Officer Francesca Fontanini told journalists in Freetown on Friday. About 45,000 of the refugees are living in camps, she said, while about 8,500 more are integrated into communities in Freetown, Bo and Kenema. Thousands of new arrivals, including 12,000 in Kailahun District, remain in the border area as the UNHCR works to increase the capacity of its camps. "The situation for the moment is under control," she said, adding: "We are dealing with refugees coming from official and unofficial crossing points, which is a big effort because there are almost 27 crossing points. We shuttle them from the border areas to Zimmi station which has a capacity of 2,000 people. From there they will be moving on to the interior of the country, to the refugee camps. According to the U.N. convention, the refugees should be at least 50 kilometers from the border."

20 February: Members of the Paris-based press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have denounced the leaders of 23 African countries, claiming their governments "abuse freedom of the press on a daily basis." 23 RSF "militants" demonstrated Thursday in front of the Palais des Congrès, the venue of the 22nd Franco-African Summit, wearing t-shirts with the photos of persons the organisation called "press freedom dunces" – the leaders of Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Djibouti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Libya, Mauritania, Rwanda, Seychelles Sudan, Swaziland, Togo, Tunisia and Zimbabwe. "Reporters Without Borders is urging France and those African States that respect press freedom to tackle this issue at the summit, and use whatever influence they have with the 23 countries denounced by the organisation in order to see to it that freedom of speech is secure throughout the continent," the group said in a statement.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on the international community Thursday to support peacekeeping efforts on the African continent. In his opening address at the Franco-African Summit in Paris, Annan told French and African leaders that progress was being made in settling conflicts in Angola, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Reuters news agency reported. "That makes it all the more important for the international community to provide strong support to Africa's peacekeeping and peacemaking mechanisms and institutions – as set out, for example, in the G8 Action Plan for Africa," he said. "Africa cannot afford further turmoil – but if it erupts, Africa must have the capacity to respond."

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has appointed a four-member Panel of Experts to review Liberia's compliance with a two year old sanctions regime on that country. The sanctions, which include a weapons ban, a ban on international travel and an embargo on the sale of Liberian rough diamonds, were imposed because of the Liberian government's alleged backing for Sierra Leone's RUF rebels, and for its involvement in the illegal arms-for-diamonds trade. The new panel will include Atabou Bobian, a Senegalese aviation expert, Enrico Carish, a Swiss expert in financial links, Damien Callamand of France, a member of Interpol; and British diamond expert Alex Vines.

Sierra Leone's new High Commissioner to the Gambia, Foday Abdulrahman Sesay, presented his credentials to President Yahya Jammeh over the weekend, Banjul's Daily Observer newspaper reported. 

19 February: The United States government has invited two senior Sierra Leonean police officers to attend an international conference in the American capital next week aimed at finding ways to combat the growing problem of human trafficking, the U.S. Embassy in Freetown said on Wednesday. The four-day conference is sponsored by the U.S. State Department in cooperation with the non-governmental organization 'War Against Trafficking Alliance.' Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police and Chief Superintendent of Police for Bo District Amadu Kaikai will join about 250 law enforcement officials from around the world to examine strategies which have proven successful in the prevention and prosecution of human trafficking, and the protection of its victims. "Coming out of war, with a large number of displaced persons including refugees from other West African countries, Sierra Leone is a target for human traffickers and therefore vulnerable to exploitation," the embassy statement said. Human trafficking – the illegal movement of people from one country to another for profit – is now thought to be the third largest moneymaker for organized criminal groups after drugs and weapons, according to Dr. Kevin Bales, director of the Washington, D.C.-based group 'Free the Slaves.' Bales (pictured left), who is also a consultant to the United Nations Global Programme on Trafficking in Persons, told the Sierra Leone Web that young African women who turn to human traffickers in search of a better life often find themselves forced into a life of prostitution on the streets of southern Europe. Children from Mali and Burkina Faso, he added, can wind up as slaves on Ivory Coast's plantations or in Ghana's fishing industry. In the aftermath of their country's civil war, many Sierra Leoneans have joined the flood of Africans seeking to enter Europe by sea from North Africa. Many of them never make it. "The death toll is very high in that crossing from northern Africa to southern Europe," Bales said. "We really don’t know how many, because there are particularly rickety boats that have sunk in sight of land, causing a number of drownings. But how many sank that no one ever knew about?" Other dangers confront the victims of human traffickers as well. "They may be paying someone to smuggle them, but once they get into that conduit they in fact lose control over themselves," Bales said. "Their documents are taken. They may be brutalized, and they come under a violent kind of control. That kind of violence can also lead to serious injury or even death." People from impoverished or war-torn countries like Sierra Leone, Bales observed, are particularly vulnerable to human traffickers. "At base, the rule is people in human trafficking flow from poorer countries to richer countries," he said. "When you’re coming from Sierra Leone, the richer countries are almost every other country in the world." 

Sierra Leone's Under-17 football squad eliminated rival Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou over the weekend in the return leg of their CAF first-round qualifying match, the official Sierra Leone News Agency (SLENA) reported. The game ended in a 1-1 draw, sending the Sierra Stars through on the away goals rule. Their earlier match in Freetown ended in a 0-0 tie. The return leg had originally been scheduled for January, but was postponed due to a conflict with an Under-20 Nations Cup match. The Burkinabes scored in the 17th minute, but the Sierra Leoneans equalized three minutes later. Sierra Leone will play Tunisia next month in their second round match for the opportunity to compete in the Under-17 Championship in Swaziland in May.

18 February: The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has expressed concern over fighting in western Liberia, which has prompted an estimated 30,000 to flee their homes for the capital, Monrovia. Another 6,000 Liberians have crossed into Sierra Leone, with thousands more reportedly on the way. "This has caused alarm in Sierra Leone, which is just recovering from a painful, decade–long war itself," a UNHCR spokesman said in Geneva. Meanwhile, the agency said it was making plans to airlift around 17,000 Sierra Leonean refugees living in camps outside Monrovia back to Sierra Leone. 

87 more Liberian soldiers have surrendered to Sierra Leonean security forces, the BBC reported on Tuesday. According to correspondent Lansana Fofana, 110 others, most of them soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia, fled to Sierra Leone last week. "Mainly (they crossed in) the Mano River Bridge area and then also the bypass routes," Fofana said. "They are eventually taken over to Kenema and interrogated, and then brought over to Freetown for encampment." The Liberians are ultimately taken to the village of Mapeh on the Lungi Peninsula. Meanwhile, Reuters quoted Sierra Leone's Chief of Defence Staff as saying he had met with LURD commanders during a recent trip to the border area and warned them to stay on their own side of the frontier. "I told the commanders and other ranks of the LURD, who were heavily armed, that now that they control that area, they should stay in their area and not cross into Sierra Leone to cause any trouble to civilians," said Brigadier Tom Carew (pictured right), adding: "If they do, Sierra Leone troops deployed on the border will waste no time acting on them robustly."

Spain wants to send back thousands of illegal African immigrants who reach that country by sea via Morocco, the Deutsche Presse Agentur reported on Tuesday, quoting Spanish press reports. Under a 1992 agreement between the two countries, Morocco is required to take back all the occupants of boats which set out illegally from its coast. In practice, however, Morocco has only agreed to the return of its own nationals. "In most cases, Africans from countries like Nigeria, Sierra Leone or Mali remain in Spain," the news service said. "Repatriation for Spain is prohibitively expensive. In addition, the African immigrants generally destroy their travel documents, so it is impossible to determine their country of origin." Last year, more than 16,000 people who set out from Morocco by sea succeeded in reaching the coast of southern Spain or the Canary Islands. About half of these came from Morocco, and the rest from countries south of the Sahara. 

17 February: The commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone said he met with Liberian rebels over the weekend and appealed to them to act humanely to civilians in the areas under their control. According to the Associated Press, Lieutenant-General Daniel Opande crossed the Mano River Bridge, where he met with a commander of the Liberian insurgency LURD. "One point I raised with the commander of the LURD fighters and his men is the mere fact that they have taken over that side of the bridge means they must behave in a humane manner to civilians and not to harass them," Opande told reporters on Monday. He said he had gone to the area to appraise the security situation, which he described as "fluid." The general said rebel leaders assured him that their fighters wouldn't move into Sierra Leone. Opande said he saw child soldiers in the rebel ranks. "I was amazed at the youthful looks of the LURD fighters, including child soldiers, some of whom were armed," he said.

Saudi Arabia will fund the construction of three referral hospitals in Sierra Leone and will write off Sierra Leonean debt to the kingdom, clearing the way for further Saudi aid to Sierra Leone's health sector, the official Sierra Leone News Agency (SLENA) said on Monday. The pledge was made during President Kabbah's just-concluded official visit to Saudi Arabia, during which the president took part in the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage, to the Muslim holy city of Mecca. President Kabbah has cancelled plans to attend the 22nd Franco-African Summit in Paris this week because he was not feeling well after his trip, a high-level source told the Sierra Leone Web. "It's nothing serious – just a cold," the source said. Kabbah was to have left for Paris Monday evening for the two-day conference on on the 20th and 21st, and then to have flown to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for the five-day Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit which opens this Wednesday. The NAM summit "is still touch-and-go," the source said.

Motorists are continuing to cue in front of petrol stations in the Sierra Leonean capital as the government-owned news agency reported that a ship carrying fuel was due to arrive either late Sunday or on Monday. "The fuel scarcity is still biting. I was in the queue for hours and only ended getting three gallons," one journalist told the Sierra Leone Web Monday afternoon. The news agency quoted Trade and Industry Minister Dr. Kadi Sesay as confirming that there would be in increase in the price of fuel. Subsequent press reports in Freetown said the cost of a gallon of petrol would increase from Le 4,900 (about $2.25) to Le 6,050.

The Italian clothing retailer Benetton and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said Monday they will team up for a 30-nation advertising campaign to raise awareness about world hunger. The Food for Life campaign features stark images of vulnerable people in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Afghanistan and Cambodia. One photo displays the torso of a Sierra Leonean amputee with a spoon attached to the stump of his arm. Themes for the $15 million campaign include "Food for Peace" (Sierra Leonean ex-combatants), "Food for Education" (Afghan children), "Food for Work" (Afghan women), "Food to Go Home" (Afghan refugees), "Food for Protection" (Cambodian girls and African prostitutes), and "Food for Stability" (Liberian child refugees.). "Ex-combatants in Sierra Leone receive food aid when they disarm," the WFP said in a statement which accompanied the announcement. "Most of them are poor and uneducated. If they are also hungry and with no hopes for the future it is more likely that they will take up arms again, and the situation of peace among the various factions is fragile enough as it is." Monday's announcement follows a warning by the WFP that an $84 million funding shortfall could cut off food supplies to some 1.2 million African refugees. Previous Benetton advertising campaigns have highlighted the death penalty and AIDS awareness, using controversial images of death row inmates in the United States and AIDS victims.

15 February: 107 Liberian soldiers crossed into Sierra Leone over the past two days to escape an offensive by LURD rebels, the Associated Press reported on Saturday, quoting Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police Francis Munu. The Liberians were said to have surrendered to Sierra Leonean officers after crossing the Mano River Bridge, which divides the two countries. "They said that they were...almost overwhelmed by the rebels," Munu was quoted as saying. Most of the soldiers were taken to Mapeh village, which now shelters 174 Liberian troops who fled their country since fighting intensified last year. 16 injured soldiers, however, were sent to Lungi for treatment. Meanwhile, the news agency quoted UNAMSIL spokesman Masimba Tafirenyika as saying some 4,000 Liberian civilians had crossed into Sierra Leone since Thursday to escape fighting in the border area. Reuters quoted outgoing UNAMSIL military spokesman Major Mohamed Shekari as saying late Friday that U.N. peacekeepers were on alert to prevent the fighting from spilling over into Sierra Leone. "Thousands of people are fleeing from Liberia through the eastern border and many of them are women and children," he said. "The U.N., in collaboration with the UNHCR, has been helping to evacuate the fleeing refugees by transporting them to refugee camps, but this is done after the refugees have been screened by Sierra Leone's police and armed forces." In a press briefing on Friday, Shekari said it was the responsibility of the Sierra Leone army to secure the country's borders, but that UNAMSIL would not allow the country to be plunged back into conflict. "As long as UNAMSIL remains and has a well-armed, well-equipped force, we want to assure you that we will not fold our arms and watch the security of this country be interfered with or threatened," he said. A source who returned from the border area subsequently told the Sierra Leone Web that more than 400 refugees turned up at the Sierra Leonean coastal town of Sulima early last week. "On the night of the 10th February to the afternoon of the 12th February 424 refugees had arrived in Sulima alone from Robertsport by 8 Ghanaian fishing boats and 29 dugout boats," he said. "This population comprised of 114 men, 200 women and 110 children. This included many Ghanaian Fanti fishermen, Liberians, and a few Sierra Leoneans. On the morning of the 13th February, the border town Bo (Waterside) on the Liberian side of the Mano river bridge had also fallen by 11:00, with tens of Liberian soldiers crossing into Sierra Leone and surrendering to Sierra Leonean forces based at Gendema on the Sierra Leone side."

14 February: 1,800 Liberian refugees arrived Thursday in the Sierra Leonean border towns of Gendema and Sulima, fleeing fighting between rebels and government forces in northern Liberia, the UNHCR said on Friday. Several thousand more are expected to follow. Meanwhile, the UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP) expressed concern Friday that a shortfall in funding could interrupt the supply of food to some 1.2 million African refugees. According to a statement issued by the two United Nations agencies, the WFP urgently needs 112,000 metric tons of food worth an estimated $84 million over the next six months to avoid severe hunger among refugees in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Algeria and Sudan.

A Danish press photographer, Jan Dagø, is the winner of this year's World Press Photo contest prize in the 'General News Stories' category for his reporting from Sierra Leone. Another Dane, Jan Anders Garup, took second prize in the People in the News Singles category for his photo "Liberian Refugees in Sierra Leone." In the 'Portraits Singles' category, Brent Stirton of South Africa took first place for his photo "Former Bushwife, Sierra Leone." The jury for year's World Press Photo contest, the 46th, considered a record 53,597 photos in nine categories, representing the work of 3,913 professional photographers from 118 countries. A photo of a boy mourning at his father's gravesite after an earthquake in Iran was named the 2002 World Press Photo of the Year. 

Exchange rates for the leone against the U.S. dollar, pound sterling and Euro, posted in Freetown on Friday: [Buying / Selling] Standard Chartered Bank: [$] 2150 / 2350. [£] 3100 / 3350. € 2100 / 2300. Commercial Bank: [$] 2150 / 2350. [£] 3150 / 3350. Frandia: [$] 2350 / 2500 [£] 3400 / 3800. € 2300 / 2400. Continental: [$] 2350 / 2500 [£] 3400 / 3800. € 2200 / 2450. Dollar Boys (Black Market): [$] 2400 / 2450 [£] 3500 / 3600.

13 February: Tens of thousands of Sierra Leonean civilians were the victims of often horrific abuse during the country's decade of civil war. Thousands suffered mutilations or amputations; thousands more, many of them children, were abducted by the warring factions and forced to become combatants, porters or sex slaves. Tens of thousands of women and girls were the victims of rape or other sexual violence. Millions had to flee their homes, their villages burnt, their houses looted. Many of the victims of these atrocities, and some of the perpetrators, are living outside the country. Now, as the country struggles to come to grips with its recent past, Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) wants to make sure that their voices are heard. The TRC has posted statement forms on its website, maintained by the Sierra Leone Web, for both victims and perpetrators to tell their stories. The reports are confidential. The TRC was set up in 2002 to create an impartial historical record of human rights abuses committed during Sierra Leone's civil war, to address impunity, to respond to the needs of victims, and to prevent a repetition of the violations and abuses suffered. To ensure confidentiality, the TRC is requesting that the completed forms be mailed to the nearest Sierra Leonean diplomatic mission, marked "TRC" on the left hand corner of the envelope. The statements will then be sent to the commission by secure diplomatic pouch.

In 1979, Aiah Melvin Ngekia left his native Sierra Leone for the United States where, like many of the young Africans who flock to the West, he hoped to further his education. For the next two decades he lived in the Washington, D.C. area, where he studied, married, and supported himself as a Certified Nursing Assistant and later as a driving instructor. And although he never completed his university degree, he did earn a number of educational certificates along the way. But what was important to Ngekia is that he never lost touch with his homeland. "I was going back and forth," he said on Tuesday. "I only stopped going when the war became intense." This Sunday, Ngekia is going home for good, as the newly-elected chief of Kono District’s diamond rich – and war-ravaged – Kamara Chiefdom.

12 February: United Nations peacekeepers and Sierra Leone army troops conducted a joint patrol in Kambia District at the weekend along the border with Guinea, UNAMSIL said in a statement. UNAMSIL called the three-day patrol the first significant operation of its kind involving U.N. and Sierra Leonean troops in that part of the country. The operation was conducted by a platoon of troops from  UNAMSIL's Kenyan battalion at Masiaka and a platoon from the RSLAF (Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces) Reconnaissance Unit.

Liberian insurgents have captured the coastal town of Robertsport, close to Liberia's border with Sierra Leone, the Associated Press reported, quoting defence officials in Monrovia. LURD rebels reportedly entered the town of 13,000 on Wednesday morning using canoes taken from local fishermen. At talks in Freetown last weekend, LURD agreed to negotiations with the Liberian government aimed at ending more than three years of civil strife in their country.

11 February: Security checkpoints set up along the Freetown - Bo highway over the weekend were "just a normal routine," a senior police official told the Sierra Leone Web on Tuesday. While he acknowledged that part of the reason for the operation was related to the search for fugitive former junta leader Johnny Paul Koroma and others wanted for questioning in connection with last month's armed attack on a military warehouse, the official insisted police had not received any intelligence reports which would indicate further problems. "Those checkpoints are set up so we just make checks," he said. "You know we are investigating certain people that are now at large." One journalist who returned from Bo on Monday reported encountering a "significant army checkpoint" east of Waterloo. "Curiously, the soldiers were wearing green face paint," he said. 

10 February: Long lines formed in front of petrol stations in Sierra Leone's capital over the weekend after a shipment of fuel bound for Freetown failed to arrive on time. Vice President Solomon Berewa told the Sierra Leone Web Monday that the delay was caused by the current crisis in the Ivory Coast, where Sierra Leone obtains its fuel. "It’s just a small hiccup. It’s cleared already," Berewa said. "There was some delay in the arrival (due to) this Abidjan problem. They used to get the fuel from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast. There was a small delay in the arrival of the fuel. It’s over now." Information Minister Septimus Kaikai said the government had been informed last week that the fuel tanker ship was on its way to Freetown. "Then on Saturday (there were) no sales of petrol at the petrol stations," he said. "But they did indicate on Monday they would start selling petrol, which they are doing – some of the stations. As a matter of fact, yesterday some of the stations were already selling some petrol."

Liberia's Information Minister has welcomed an agreement by LURD rebels to meet without preconditions with Liberian government officials for talks aimed at ending three years of civil strife in their country. The LURD statement came at the end of three days of talks in the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown which were mediated by ECOWAS parliamentarians, and religious leaders and civil society groups. Information Minister Reginald Goodridge told the BBC that the talks should take place as soon as possible, "hopefully sooner than a month," in Bamako, Mali. "This is an elections year; we want reconciliation, our country needs development," he said. "There would be lots to talk about, and I’m certain that something positive will come out of these talks." Fighting in Liberia has spilled over into Sierra Leone in recent months, resulting in several raids on border villages. Tens of thousands of new Liberian refugees have sought protection in Sierra Leone since the beginning of last year. 

9 February: Liberia's LURD rebels have dropped their preconditions for negotiations with the Liberian government which would seek to bring to an end three years of civil conflict in their war-torn country, news services reported on Sunday. The agreement came at the end of three days of talks in Freetown – one day more than originally planned – which were mediated by ECOWAS parliamentarians, religious leaders, and civil society groups. Two Liberian senators represented the government of Charles Taylor.  In a communiqué issued at the end of the talks, LURD pledged to "commit itself to a peaceful resolution of the crisis within...2003," the Associated Press reported. The news service said a key stumbling block was removed when the rebels dropped their demand that President Taylor resign before negotiations could take place. According to the BBC, LURD pledged it was willing to engage in dialogue with the Liberian government at any place and time to be arranged by the ECOWAS parliament, the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and the international community. The ECOWAS parliamentarians and LURD delegates also agreed to maintain dialogue through the Inter-Religious Council. LURD is still demanding that the Armed Forces of Liberia be restructured "to be a broad spectrum of the population, with geographic and ethnic balance," LURD Secretary-General Joe T. Gbalah told the Associated Press. Gbalah, who headed LURD's five-member delegation, contends that Taylor has packed the army with loyalists from his former rebel faction, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. "LURD does not trust Charles Taylor with the present structure of the Liberian army," Gbalah said.

One of the ECOWAS parliamentarians mediating this week's talks between LURD rebels and Liberian legislators was Nigerian representative Mao Ohua-Bunwa, the chairman of ECOWAS parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security. In an interview with the Voice of America, Ohua-Bunwa said the parliamentarians had decided to take the initiative in trying to bring the warring factions together because "what affects any country within the sub-region affects the entire sub-region."   "We had to come on a fact-finding mission some time last year and this is a follow-up mission," he said. "Luckily we have been able to get the LURD to discuss with the Inter-Religious Council. We want to talk with them – what are their problems, what are their grievances; and we look for ways to agree with them on ways to move forward." The next step, Ohua-Bunwa said, would be to carry the same message to Liberian leaders in Monrovia. This week's meeting marked the first time that representatives of LURD have emerged from the bush for talks of any kind. Ohua-Bunwa said an earlier meeting in Nigeria collapsed when LURD officials failed to turn up. He said the present initiative, conducted by ECOWAS parliamentarians with the backing of regional leaders, promised greater success. "This is the first time the parliamentarians are coming in," he said. "And you know that parliamentarians are the representatives of the people. We are the representatives so they are members of our constituency. So as members of the people, we know how to get them where we want them." Ohua-Bunwa said the purpose of the talks in Freetown was to set the stage for future negotiations between the Liberian government and the rebels. "We want the LURD and the government to come to a round-table conference so that we can have peace," he said. He added that if the conflict could not be contained, "the whole sub-region will be in crisis, and it will not do us any good."

8 February: Talks in Freetown aimed at bringing an end to three years of fighting between Liberian government forces and LURD rebels bogged down Friday over LURD demands that President Charles Taylor resign and that the country's army be restructured, the Associated Press reported late Friday. LURD Secretary-General Joe T. Gbalah said he had presented the group's list of demands to ECOWAS mediators and to two members of Liberia's parliament. "Charles Taylor must resign, since he was not fairly elected," he told the news agency. Gbalah also accused Taylor of packing the Armed Forces of Liberia with loyalists from his former rebel group, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). "LURD will not feel secure under the present structure, even if they are offered positions in a transitional government," he said. A mediator was quoted as saying the negotiations had "not been easy." The talks are expected to resume on Saturday.

Half a world distant from his home town of Yengema, medical researcher Moses J. Bockarie leads a group of scientists who are closing in on ways to control a debilitating disease – an effort which already promises to have profound public health implications for his native Sierra Leone. In a research paper published last December in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Bockarie (pictured left) and his fellow researchers describe their work in rural Papua New Guinea to combat Lymphatic filariasis, a disfiguring parasitic infection more widely known as Elephantiasis. Their findings, the Journal notes, have important implications for the worldwide effort to eradicate the disease because they show that by simply administering four rounds of an annual, single-dose, two-drug mass treatment, an infection rate as high as 77 percent in some villages could be reduced to almost nothing. In fact, the researchers found no new infections after only one round of the treatment. After three rounds, the transmission rate in even the most severely-affected areas was cut by 97 percent. 

7 February: Two police officers who led the January 18 raid on the residence of Johnny Paul Koroma have been suspended for failing to arrest the former junta leader, police sources said on Friday. The two, who were suspended with pay, are Assistant Superintendent A.M. Kamara, of the Operational Support Division, and Inspector B.P. Lebbie, who is attached to the Criminal Investigations Division. The police action followed a January 13 armed attack on a military supply depot in the Freetown suburb of Wellington. Some 20 persons allegedly linked to the incident were detained at Koroma's residence, but Koroma himself was allowed to escape. A police media source noted that the officers had been instructed to detain everyone they found at Koroma's residence. Acting Deputy Inspector-General of Police Brima Acha Kamara told the Sierra Leone Web it was not clear whether Koroma was allowed to get away "through negligence or otherwise," but he said the officers had been suspended pending an investigation into their failure to take the junta-leader-turned-parliamentarian into custody. "The investigating team thought they have more questioning to be done and as a result, pending the full completion of the investigation, they have been temporarily suspended," he said. 77 people have so far been arrested, Kamara said. He added that recommendations had been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions that some of those currently in detention should be released.

A five-member delegation from the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) has begun talks in Freetown with ECOWAS parliamentarians and members of the Inter-Religious Councils of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, Kelvin Lewis reported on Friday for Radio France International. The parliamentarians and religious leaders are hoping to broker peace talks between the rebels and the Liberian government. The rebel delegation, led by Secretary-General Joe T. Gbalah, presented the LURD position on Friday morning. "A communiqué is expected to be issued at the end of the day (which) is expected to include an agreement (by LURD) to sit around a table and talk peace with President Taylor," Lewis said. Meanwhile, United Nations agencies working in Liberia report that Sierra Leonean refugees and displaced Liberians outside the capital have fled the camps where they were staying. Militias are reportedly harassing and robbing the fleeing population of their valuables, and arriving displaced mothers are reporting missing children, a U.N. spokesman said. The U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that retreating rebels had reportedly abducted a number of persons from the town of Cheesemanburg.

6 February: As fighting between LURD rebels and Liberian government forces continues to rage only 40 miles from the Liberian capital Monrovia, West African mediators are hoping to broker a truce between the two sides in Freetown, the Associated Press reported. The news agency said a LURD delegation arrived in the Sierra Leonean capital on Thursday for two days of ECOWAS-sponsored negotiations, one day after Liberian President Charles Taylor urged the rebels to join him for peace talks, lay down their arms, and form a political party to compete in next October's elections. LURD Secretary-General Joe T. Gbalah, the leader of the rebel delegation, told participants that LURD was "prepared for peace."

Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has named Franklyn Bai Kargbo as its permanent Executive-Secretary, a TRC spokesman told the Sierra Leone Web on Thursday. Kargbo, a British-educated lawyer, served briefly as Attorney-General and Secretary of State for Judicial Affairs under the NPRC military regime. Since 2001, he has been Chief of the Human Rights Office for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE). Kargbo's selection ends a search which first began in mid-September, but had to be restarted two months later after flaws were found in the recruitment proces. Kargbo, who holds degrees from the University of North London, Lincoln's Inn & Council of Legal Education School of Law and the University of Nottingham, is Head of Chambers for the law firm Kargbo & Co. He was named Attorney-General and Secretary of State for Judicial Affairs in July 1993, but resigned a year later. He returned to Britain, where he received an LL.M degree in Human Rights Law from the University of Nottingham in 1996. In 1997 and 1998 he was Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions in the Gambia. Meanwhile, the Commission finally relocated last week from temporary quarters on Pademba Road to its permanent offices at the old Brookfields Hotel, the spokesman said.

President Kabbah left Freetown for Saudi Arabia shortly after midnight at the head of a group of pilgrims bound for the holy city of Mecca, Information Minister Septimus Kaikai said on Thursday. The trip was made at the invitation of King Fahd bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, and will include talks with Saudi officials. The pilgrimage, or Hajj, is the second for Kabbah, but the first for a number of those accompanying him, including Foreign Affairs Minister Momodu Koroma, presidential spokesman Kanji Daramy, intelligence director Abdulai Mustapha, parliamentarian Ansu Kaikai, presidential protocol officer Soulay Daramy, and Ambassador to Libya Ambassador Mohamed L. Samura. Libya reportedly provided a presidential jet to fly the group to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Al-Bawaba news reported that Kabbah was met on his arrival at the Red Sea port city of Jeddah Thursday morning by Jeddah governor Prince Mishal bin Majed bin Abdulaziz and other officials. Meanwhile, Kaikai said he expected the talks with Saudi officials to result in a "tangible result," but he did not elaborate. It was scheduling conflicts, Kaikai said, which caused President Kabbah to miss last week's ECOWAS summit in Senegal and this week's African Union (AU) summit in Ethiopia. Sierra Leone was instead represented in Addis Ababa by Vice President Solomon Berewa, and by a lower-level official in Dakar.

5 February: Actor and producer Michael Douglas ended a five-day trip to Sierra Leone Wednesday by viewing the remains of weapons surrendered to the United Nations, and talking to victims of the country's decade-long civil war, the Associated Press reported. Douglas, who was named a United Nations "Messenger of Peace" in 1998, is narrating a U.N. film about the wartime experiences of child soldiers and their reintegration into their communities. The 58-year old actor arrived in Sierra Leone on Friday, and spent most of his time in Kono District, which suffered some of the worst destruction during the country's decade of civil war. "I am impressed with how many kids are keen on getting back to school, in places really war-torn," Douglas was quoted as saying.

4 February: Police have made no progress in their search for fugitive former junta leader Johnny Paul Koroma (pictured left) and others being sought for questioning in connection with last month's armed attack on a military supply warehouse in Wellington, Acting Deputy Inspector-General of Police Brima Acha Kamara said on Tuesday. In telephone interviews with the media shortly after he disappeared last month, Koroma expressed fears for his safety, and he accused the government of mounting a "witch hunt" to discredit him. In an interview with the Sierra Leone Web, Kamara insisted that police would treat the AFRC chairman turned parliamentarian as "an innocent person," but he added: "He has to explain. If he gives himself up we have to pose certain questions to him." Kamara described the police investigation into last month's attack as "very transparent."  "We have the human rights people coming in questioning," he said. "It’s not a secretive investigation."  Kamara said Tuesday he did not know how many people had been arrested in connection with what the authorities have called "a conspiracy to destabilize the security situation of the country," but one source in Freetown put the number at over 70.  Kamara said police were currently turning over evidence to the Law Officers Department to build a case against some of those detained, while others not deemed to be directly involved would soon be released. Meanwhile, police are continuing to urge Koroma to surrender to the authorities. "We have appealed for him to give himself up," he said. "He will be treated fairly. This is a different police force we are having now. We do respect the human rights of people. That is why it’s better for him to give up than being caught by civilians or other people. It will be in his own best interest to give himself up to the authorities." Koroma has not yet been charged with any crime, and Kamara said the fact that police are offering a ten million leones reward (about $5,000) for his capture did not mean a presumption of guilt. "He’s a very important person we want to question," he said. "We are not only seeking him – we are seeking others equally. But he is a public figure. He’s very important and we need him."

LURD rebels have captured two key towns northwest of the Liberian capital, uprooting Sierra Leonean refugees and displaced Liberians and causing residents to flee toward the city, news services reported on Tuesday. The Reuters news agency quoted sources who said the fighting had reached the town of Cheesemanburg, eleven miles north of Monrovia, while the Associated Press said government forces were rushing to reinforce their positions at the Po River Bridge, twelve miles from the outskirts of town. Security forces were quoted as saying that fighting was going on only a few miles beyond the bridge. The Armed Forces of Liberia has ordered all soldiers to report for duty on Wednesday, the news service said. According to the BBC, Defence Minister Daniel Chea (pictured left) acknowledged that the towns of Bopolu and Tubmanburg had fallen to LURD, but he insisted his forces were massing for a counter-attack. Tubmanburg, the nearer of the two towns, is 40 miles from Monrovia. News services reported seeing jeeps loaded with armed men heading towards the area. A number of refugee youths have been abducted from camps in recent weeks, reportedly recruited as combatants. Chea insisted, however, that there was no cause for panic in the refugee camps.

American-born film actor and producer Michael Douglas is in Sierra Leone this week to narrate a U.N.-sponsored documentary on child soldiers. Douglas arrived in Freetown on Friday and flew to Kono the following day, UNAMSIL spokesman Yousef Hamdan told the Sierra Leone Web. The Sierra Leone documentary is the second in a ten-film collaboration between the U.N. Department of Public Information and RCN Entertainment. The 58-year old actor is a vocal proponent of nuclear disarmament and, through his non-profit Michael Douglas Foundation, has supported some 90 charities and advocacy groups since its inception in 1991. In 1998, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan named him a "Messenger of Peace." Douglas will continue his advocacy work during his five-day visit to Sierra Leone. "Tomorrow we are going to take him to Hastings in order to do a public service announcement against arms, and the background for this will be the destruction of arms," Hamdan said. Since 1969, Douglas has appeared in or produced some 40 motion pictures, including the films Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has expressed concern about the continued destruction of shantytowns in Ivory Coast's commercial capital of Abidjan. "Over the past week, we have received reports of armed men bursting into at least two poor districts at night, threatening residents and setting houses on fire," a spokesperson for the agency said on Tuesday. So far, she added, this had not caused additional refugees to turn to the UNHCR for assistance, but it has created displacement among local people and foreign nationals. "In Abidjan, UNHCR already cares for over 1,000 refugees of mostly Liberian and Sierra Leonean origin who lost their homes during earlier razing of shantytowns," she said.

The U.N.'s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict has urged countries affected by war to take inspiration from Sierra Leone, where a peace agreement between the government and rebel forces paved the way for a programme to demobilise and reintegrate about 7,000 former child soldiers, the U.N. Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) reported on Tuesday. Olara Otunnu spoke on Friday to West African leaders who gathered for the ECOWAS summit in Dakar on children and conflict in the sub-region. As a result of Sierra Leone's programme, Otunnu said, a national commission on war-affected children was set up. He added that the Special Court for Sierra Leone, set up to prosecute those guilty of war crimes in the country, would pay special attention to crimes committed against children. 

Investigators for Sierra Leone's Special Court will complete their work by June, Chief Prosecutor David Crane told residents of Port Loko on Tuesday. Since last August, Crane and his staff have held town meetings in 11 of Sierra Leone's 12 districts to explain the court's mandate and to solicit the views of Sierra Leoneans on how he should proceed in prosecuting those deemed to bear the greatest responsibility for war crimes. Later this week, Crane will leave for Europe and North America for talks with senior government officials and human rights leaders regarding cooperation and coordination with his office, the court said in a statement. He is planning additional diplomatic missions for late February and mid-March.

A Sierra Leonean and three Nigerians are among ten alleged drug traffickers arrested by Pakistan's Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) during the first two weeks of this year, the Xinhua news agency reported on Tuesday, quoting local Pakistani media. Between January 1 and January 15 the ANF also seized huge quantities of illicit drugs, including 1,043 kg. of charas, 8 kg. of opium and 11 kg. of heroin, an ANF official was quoted as saying.

3 February: The Leone Stars' new coach, Jose Antonio Nogueira, is looking to arrange tough friendly matches to prepare for next month's Nations Cup qualifier with Morocco, Fajah Barrie reported for the BBC. "I think Egypt would be a strong opponent, and it will be good for us if we have them for a friendly in Cairo or Freetown," Nogueira was quoted with saying. The Leone Stars meet Morocco's Atlas Lions in Freetown on March 29. Locally-based players are scheduled to begin training for that match on February 10, the BBC said.

2 February: The leaders of 39 countries, including the president of Sierra Leone, are expected to attend the first summit of the African Union (AU), which opens in Addis Ababa this week, conference organisers told the Reuters news agency. (Sources in Freetown subsequently reported that President Kabbah would not attend the summit.) The BBC put the number of expected African leaders at "at least 30." The African Union, the successor to the Organization of African Unity, has 53 member states. African leaders are expected to discuss conflicts on the continent and the role the AU should play in resolving them, as well as to look at proposals for creating a common defence policy and pan-African security council. A discussion of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) is also expected to be on the agenda. 

1 February: Sweden's international development agency, SIDA, announced Saturday it would donate 45 million kroner (about $5.2 million) in humanitarian assistance to relief operations in West Africa, the Associated Press reported. A third of the amount would go to help several hundred refugees who fled their homes as a result of the conflict in the Ivory Coast. The rest of the money will be divided between Sierra Leone and Liberia.

President Kabbah formally reopened Sierra Leone's premier tourist hotel Friday at a ceremony in the west Freetown suburb of Aberdeen. The once bullet-scarred Bintumani Hotel had been the victim of war, vandalism and neglect over the past decade. It was rebuilt by a Chinese company, the Beijing Urban Construction Corporation. In his address, Kabbah said the hotel would promote business and tourism, which in turn would provide the country with badly-needed foreign exchange and tax revenues. The result, he said, would be more jobs and and an increase in the production of local of goods and services.