The Sierra Leone Web

Cape_Lighthouse
 

March 2000
 

31 March: UNAMSIL peacekeeping troops and military observers disarmed 300 AFRC/ex-SLA combatants in Kabala on Thursday, one of the biggest disarmament operations carried out in a single day, UNAMSIL Public Information Officer Philip Winslow said on Friday. He said the combatants, along with 142 women and 39 children family members were transported from Kabala to Lungi in a 10-truck UNAMSIL convoy. "The combatants will enter the DDR programme at Lungi; the women and children will be taken to the appropriate care agencies," Winslow said in a press release. In addition to the 300 combatants who were disarmed, 95 other ex-SLA combatants without weapons were registered at Kabala and will be taken to Lungi or to screening camps later. UNAMSIL transported the group's commander, "Colonel" Mohamed Savage, to Lungi. UNAMSIL also returned 135 civilians who had been abducted or fled recent fighting back to their villages between Kabala and Bafodia. Meanwhile, BBC correspondent Lansana Fofana reported Friday that the disarmament exercise came about after RUF fighters from Fadugu pushed the AFRC/ex-SLA troops out of Bafodia in fighting between the two factions last week. Residents who escaped the area reported that after an initial RUF attack on the town was repelled, "the RUF rebels then retreated to their stronghold of Fadugu where they mobilised more troops and weaponry which they used to subsequently dislodge their AFRC rivals." One AFRC combatant was said to have been killed and three houses burned down. "Hundreds of civilians have been fleeing the Bafodia area, and some I spoke to complained of looting of property and abduction of teenage girls," Fofana said.

Sierra Leone said Friday it had arrested a group of 16 Liberian dissidents suspected of planning to cross into Liberia and destablise it. The arrests were said to have been effected by ECOMOG troops and government security forces in the Gola Forest near the border area on March 22 (according to Reuters) or March 27 (according to the Agence France-Presse). [The Associated Press gave no date.] The action was taken in accordance with a recent agreement concluded among the Mano River Union states of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia not to allow their territory to be used to launch attacks against their neighbours. "I can safely say that the 16 men had the intention of causing instability in our sister republic of Liberia," National Security Advisor Sheka Mansaray was quoted as saying.

The RUF is continuing to operate vast areas of Sierra Leone as "a state within a state," BBC television reporter Robin Denselow said Friday after a visit to Makeni earlier this month. Denselow, who reports for the BBC's Newsnight programme, described to Focus on Africa the first roadblock east of Lunsar which marked the beginning of RUF-held territory. "There’s a small string across the road, and a few armed men sitting at the side of the trees in the shade, and a few armed boys who want to know what you’re doing," he said. "And it was made pretty clear that if I hadn’t gotten permission from Sankoh himself I wouldn’t have got through." Denselow described Makeni as appearing to be a "normal African bustling market town." "There’s a big market with a lot of things on sale," he said. "There’s not much rice and they complain the prices are very, very high. There is an administration of sorts. The main control is by the RUF with their gunmen. There’s a military police who are on the streets. There are armed men, armed children as well, checkpoints around the place, and they control the area very, very strongly despite the fact that the U.N. have got a base there." The BBC reporter said the RUF operates a prison in Makeni which neither the U.N. nor local Catholic church officials has been allowed to inspect. "They’ve their own police force," he continued. "When I went to see them they performed the Sankoh Hungry Lion Dance and they all started leaping around the police station shouting "Sankoh our leader, hungry lion!" and clawing in the air. So there’s a lot of control from guys like that." He added that "around the edges" people had come up to him expressing a desire to disarm, while there were signs that the RUF was abandoning many of its child soldiers "who’ve just been found hanging around the parks, hanging around the marketplace, and they’ve been scooped up and looked after in Makeni itself." Denselow suggested that the test of the peace process would come when the disarmament camp opens in Makeni, probably in about five weeks' time. "Will they disarm, will they go along there, will they not? At the moment no one knows," he said. Local commanders told him they were prepared to disarm, but then presented a list of concerns about their future role in the peace process. "Sankoh himself, when you ask him about disarmament, says, 'Oh I’ve already told my men to disarm.' Clearly not true. 'Did you see armed men in Makeni?' Yes I did. 'Oh, they’re the armed police. They’re quite different.' So it’s really hard to tell what happens when the disarmament camp opens. That’s going to be the big crunch time, I think."

Filmmaker Sorius Samura, whose television documentary "Cry Freetown" captured the brutality of Sierra Leone's civil war during the January 1999 rebel invasion of Freetown, has won the Free Press-Africa award for his "sheer display of courage and bravery." Samura, who took up videography in 1990, was working on a film project for UNICEF when rebel forces entered the capital on January 6. At the risk of his life he took his camera into the streets to capture images of atrocities committed by both rebels and ECOMOG soldiers during the battle for the city. "He was the only journalist who remained at the height of the clashes between the rebels and the Nigerian peacekeeping force," the judges said. "(His decision) to stay behind to capture the events as they unfolded when everyone else was leaving Freetown was our overriding consideration in awarding the prize to him." Last year Samura's film, originally broadcast under the title "Out of Africa," received two other international awards for journalism: the Rory Peck Award and the Mohamed Amin Award.

30 March: United Nations peacekeepers disarmed 60 rebel fighters Thursday who had been involved in clashes with other rebel factions near Kabala for the past ten days. A U.N. spokesman said 21 U.N. military observers had spent the past several days negotiating an end to the fighting, and two platoons of Kenyan UNAMSIL troops were now in the region to monitor the situation. On Wednesday night about 350 people came out of the bush, including the 60 rebel fighters, 180 women and children who were members of their families, and 110 people who had been held captive by the rebels. A convoy of 60 Indian Gurkhas from UNAMSIL's Quick Reaction Company left Freetown Thursday to bring back the disarmed combatants and their families, the spokesman said. The former abductees are being cared for in Kabala. Meanwhile, a young armed rebel showed up at the U.N. Mission headquarters in Freetown Wednesday asking to join the DDR programme. "The fighter told U.N. staff that he had escaped from his commander who he said was not permitting his soldiers to disarm, in northern Sierra Leone," the spokesman said. "He looked terrorized and said that, if he had been caught while he escaped, his commander would have had him executed. He was taken to the nearest disarmament centre."

Human Rights Watch called on Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore Thursday to order an independent investigation into charges his country had facilitated illegal arms transfers to rebel forces in Sierra Leone and Angola. "Reports suggest that Burkina Faso has failed to uphold international arms embargoes imposed on human rights abusers in Angola and Sierra Leone," said Joost Hiltermann, Executive Director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. "President Campaore must get to the bottom of these serious allegations...Burkina Faso must not allow human rights abusers to receive more weapons with which to terrorize civilians." The human rights group cited evidence that Burkina Faso had provided false end-user certificates and had allowed its territory to be used for internationally proscribed arms trans-shipments. "The evidence suggests that large shipments of weapons Burkina Faso declared it was purchasing for its own use may in fact have been illegally diverted to other end-users, and that Burkinabe government resources, including the VIP wing of the Ouagadougou airport and a government-registered plane, may have been used to facilitate such diversions," Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Compaore. Earlier this month the United Nations sanctions committee on Angola's UNITA rebels named Compaore as one of two West African leaders involved in helping UNITA to evade U.N. sanctions. The Sierra Leone government has in the past publicly accused Burkina Faso of providing backing for the RUF.

Parliament has unanimously approved President Kabbah's nominations of former barrister Dr. Francis Gabbidon as Ombudsman and former cabinet secretary Valentine Collier as Anti-Corruption Commissioner, the Sierra Leone News Agency reported on Thursday.

The Paris-based Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) alleged Thursday that of the 53 African states participating in next week's first Africa-Europe Summit in Cairo, 22 of them — including Sierra Leone — violate press freedom. "Ten journalists died in Sierra Leone in 1999. Although the government cannot be blamed for the killings, no serious inquiries have been made to try to track down and punish those responsible," RSF said in a press release. Eight of the journalists were murdered by rebels in January 1999; one was executed by ECOMOG soldiers, and one died of tuberculosis while being detained for alleged "complicity with the rebels." "Although the violations are not as serious in all the countries, their governments have in common that they do not respect the African Charter for Human and Peoples' Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Yet all 22 countries have signed and ratified at least one of those agreements," the RSF statement said. The summit, which will be held April 3 and 4 under the auspices of the Organisation of African Unity and the European Union, will discuss socio-economic, political and developmental issues, including ways to better integrate Africa into the world economic system. In addition, Europe is expected to announce the cancellation of one billion Euros worth of debt to Africa. President Kabbah is expected to be among the heads of state and government attending the summit.

29 March: British Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short, who co-chaired Monday's Sierra Leone Donor Conference, has stressed that international financial assistance and political support for the peace process in Sierra Leone "is fantastically important, obviously to Sierra Leone, but to Africa — we cannot have another U.N. peacekeeping operation that isn’t a complete success." Short told the BBC Wednesday that Sierra Leone's Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration process is about to be speeded up "and therefore we need more funds on the table now so that we can drive it forward." Earlier in the week Britain announced it would send a team of some 90 military trainers, most of them British, to help re-establish Sierra Leone's new national army — a move the minister said was necessary to build "a democratic and peaceful Sierra Leone" because "in the last phase of the rebellion half the Sierra Leonean army joined the rebels." "Sierra Leone needs a new, disciplined, democratically-accountable army so that when it gets peace there will be no future rebellion or if anyone tries to incite one they won’t get away with it," she said.

President Kabbah arrived in Benghazi, Libya on Wednesday for talks with Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhdhafi. According to Libya's official JANA news agency, the talks centered on the situation in Sierra Leone and West Africa in general, and on ways to strengthen stability and peace on the African continent. 

28 March: Western governments and international agencies attending Monday's donor conference in London have pledged more than $158 million for disarmament and reconstruction in Sierra Leone, a United Nations spokesman said on Monday. The Sierra Leone Donor Conference ended Monday night with a statement reaffirming support for the Lomé Peace Accord and with a discussion on funding requirements for disarmament and reconstruction projects. Those pledging aid for Sierra Leone were Canada, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, the African Development Bank and the European Commission. Britain will also send a 90-member team of military advisors to help create a modern and democratically accountable integrated army in Sierra Leone. British officials said the advisors will be in the country for three years at an estimated cost to Britain of $32 million. In the conference's concluding statement, participants reaffirmed "continuing and strong political support" for Sierra Leone, and stressed that implementation of the Lomé Peace Accord was a precondition for sustainable development in the country. "We condemned those rebel groups that have so far hindered the peace process, and reminded all concerned that the peace agreement does not provide amnesty for atrocities and other criminal acts committed after the signing of the peace agreement," the statement said. Participants at the meeting agreed there was a need to speed up the peace process by shortening the length of time ex-combatants remain in demobilisation camps and strengthening district-level reintegration. To accomplish this, the rate of contributions to disarmament projects would have to be "accelerated." "As security improves, a number of development programmes and projects currently on hold would be resuscitated," the statement said.

Presidential Spokesman Septimus Kaikai has responded to Monday's student-led demonstrations protesting the slow pace of disarmament by asserting that nearly half of the country's former combatants had turned in their weapons. "As of Wednesday of last week about 44 percent of the 45,000 ex-combatants have been disarmed. The actual numbers are 20,721. We have collected about 198,836 arms and ammunition," Kaikai told the BBC Monday night. He pointed to a $24 million shortfall in funding as delaying the disarmament process. "If you take a look at the same process which may have been implemented in some other parts of the world, we are not doing that bad at all in terms of trying to get our country back on the right footing again," Kaikai insisted. The spokesman acknowledged that Sierra Leone was still divided in the sense that "there are pockets where the RUF people are," adding: "The diamond areas are partly controlled by them. This is absolutely true. But what you have to remember is that as of this weekend the UNAMSIL people have deployed somewhat, even in a marginal way, in Kono. They have been deployed in a marginal way in Kailahun. And we believe, that with the weeks coming by, they should be able to deploy themselves much more fully in those areas, in most parts of the country, which will make life much easier for the rest of the population."

Senior aid workers and government officials began a three-day meeting in Conakry, Guinea on Tuesday to try to improve the plight of the continent's eight million refugees. Guinea itself hosts about half a million refugees, the vast majority of them from Sierra Leone. According to BBC West Africa Correspondent Mark Doyle, the meeting aims to encourage greater respect for the 1969 Africa-Wide Refugee Convention. "This convention, which gives political backing to the idea of safe asylum, was designed when most African refugees were, broadly speaking, politically acceptable to their hosts," Doyle said. "They had fled from conflicts against colonialism or from wars aimed at overthrowing apartheid in South Africa. Today's African refugees are different. They are fleeing from civil, often ethnic war, genocide or human rights abuses. He added that while most African governments had signed the International Refugee Convention, few had codified legal protection for refugees into their laws. "This means that, at the grassroots level, police or customs officials at border-posts often don't know what to do when refugees start arriving," Doyle said. "Strengthening the legal position of refugees at every level is vital, because people who flee their homes are extremely vulnerable to various forms of exploitation."

Police fired into the air and arrested some 50 primary and secondary school students on Monday for their part in a violent protest calling for government schools to reopen. Sierra Leonean teachers began a nationwide strike on Monday over salary arrears and other grievances. According to Reuters, the protesters stoned private schools, forcing pupils and teachers to flee, saying that the children of government officials and officials attended the private schools which have not been affected by the strike. Meanwhile, Presidential Spokesman Septimus Kaikai told the BBC late Monday that striking teachers in Sierra Leone should receive salaries before the end of the week. "There was a meeting this afternoon between government representatives and the Sierra Leone Teachers Union. I was part of that group that met," he said. "We have decided that rather than paying them through the old way which we were paying them, we will now use the banking system to pay them." 

Olara Otunnu, the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, and U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Carol Bellamy begin three days of consultations with leading non-governmental organisations Wednesday on key issues regarding children and armed conflict. A U.N. spokesman said participants in the meeting hope to contribute to a report to be issued by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in July. An estimated 5,000 children fought in Sierra Leone's civil war, and many thousands more were abducted by rebel groups to serve as labourers and sex-slaves for the rebels.

Chinese Vice Premier Li Lanqing met in Beijing Tuesday with a Sierra Leonean delegation led by Minister of Information and Broadcasting Dr. Julius Spencer, according to China's Xinhua news agency. The Sierra Leonean delegation is visiting China at the invitation of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

Former RUF spokesman Omrie Golley has met with the Executive Secretary of the Interim National Electoral Commission, David Minah, to declare his intention to register his National Reconstruction Party of Sierra Leone to contest next year's presidential and parliamentary elections, the Sierra Leone News Agency (SLENA) reported on Tuesday. 

27 March: Deputy United Nations Secretary-General Louise Fréchette opened a donors conference on Sierra Leone in London Monday with a call on the international community to intensify its efforts to help bring peace to Sierra Leone. "Having taken on this responsibility, we can ill afford the price of failure - neither in terms of human suffering in Sierra Leone, nor in terms of the damage that such a setback could inflict on the world's faith in the international community's ability to address conflicts in Africa and elsewhere," Fréchette said. She stressed that the situation in Sierra Leone was so fragile there was a risk "we could lose the peace if we do not cooperate, communicate and coordinate fully." She added that the donors conference offered "a welcome opportunity for all involved to pledge themselves to just such a unified plan of action, with real commitment and real resources." Fréchette, who is co-chairing the conference with British Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short and Mats Karlson of the World Bank, said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's four main objectives in Sierra Leone were to demobilise the army, to extend state authority throughout the country, to promote national reconciliation and democratization, and to improve the country's capacity to ensure its own security. She stressed that the success of the peacebuilding process in Sierra Leone would ultimately depend on the willingness of the Lomé Peace Accord signatories to work with the United Nations in moving the process forward. Fréchette pointed to the need for unhindered access by U.N. peacekeeping troops, aid workers and civilians, particularly in areas controlled by the RUF.

Britain will contribute an additional £17.5 million to help Sierra Leone recover from civil war, British Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short announced at Monday's donors conference in London. The latest contribution would bring to £65 million total British assistance to Sierra Leone since March 1998. The one-day conference, which Short was co-chaired, included representatives of the United Nations, the World Bank, the European Commission, the World Food Programme, the International Monetary Fund, and other donor countries. "Creating new and democratically accountable armed forces in Sierra Leone is vital to the long-term success of the Lomé Peace Agreement and restoring public confidence in the role of the army," she said. "The restructured armed forces will be representative of all the people of Sierra Leone." Short called on the international community to back the peace process. "This is a crucial time for the peace process in Sierra Leone...It is a test case for the international community and its willingness to deal with conflict in Africa," she said. "It is clear that with the biggest deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force anywhere, the world is watching Sierra Leone." Earlier, Prime Minister Tony Blair said Britain would send a military advisory training team to Sierra Leone to help in setting up the country's restructured army. Blair, who made the announcement during talks with President Kabbah, said the team would be funded by Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office and would be part of a U.K.-led effort to rebuild an effective and accountable army in Sierra Leone. The military advisors, most of them from Britain, are expected to be deployed in Sierra Leone by the end of the year.

Thousands of demonstrators marched through Freetown to the Law Court Monday to protest the slow pace of the country's disarmament process. The National Union of Sierra Leone Students (NUSS), which organised the march, said everyone involved in the peace process was to blame, including the government, the United Nations, and former rebel groups, but student leaders singled out the RUF for what they said was a lack of commitment to the peace process. "It is now eight months since the signing of the Lomé Peace Agreement, and we, the students, are of the firm conviction that a lot more needs to be done to accelerate the process," NUSS president Gilbert Bosco Nahbay told the Voice of America. "We believe that if the disarmament program is not done speedily, it will compromise the search for a lasting and durable peace in our country." Students shouted down RUFP Spokesman Eldred Collins when he tried to address the protesters, and smashed the window of his car as he was rushed away. Students signed a resolution criticising RUF/RUFP leader Foday Sankoh for his "attitude...which showed that he is not committed to the Lomé Peace Agreement and lasting peace in Sierra Leone," and presented a six-point action plan which they say they will give to the U.N. President Kabbah, Sankoh, and AFRC leader Johnny Paul Koroma. The plan reportedly called for elections to be postponed until the completion of the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programme, and called for sanctions against rebel leaders who failed to comply with it. The Voice of America and the Agence France-Presse estimated that about 3,000 persons took part in the march, while Reuters put the number at close to 4,000.

A first round of child polio immunisations around Sierra Leone was successful, according to Alfred George, a parliamentarian and social mobilisation consultant for the National Immunisation Days programme. "There was a massive turnout in all the centres as well as reports in the north of a demand for increased vaccinations," George told the U.N. Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN). Vaccinations took place at regional centres around the country, including rebel-held areas which had previously been inaccessible to humanitarian workers. "We have been in radio contact with people on the ground and there have been no adverse reports, no abductions," George said. "We have moved a step or two forward in districts such as Bombali, Kono and Kailahun." The next round of vaccinations is scheduled for April 22. The National Immunisation Days programme, part of the World Health Organisation's campaign to eradicate polio worldwide by the year 2000, was organised by the Ministry of Health in cooperation with the WHO, UNICEF, UNAMSIL, Rotary International and other non-governmental organisations.

Sierra Leone Teachers Union president Festus Minah held out hope Monday for a resolution of issues which led last week to a nationwide teachers strike. "What we have and would be expecting is if government can pay the current salary – that is for January and February –  nationwide, and pay the new teachers inclusive nationwide, and we see their promises of the payment of the backlog nationwide, then perhaps we can have consultations again with our membership and we can see what we can talk of," Minah told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme. The union claims the government owes teachers some six months salary arrears, and has complained of late payments and the forced retirement of teachers. Minah stressed that teachers also had an interest as parents in seeing an end to the strike. "One third of the children in schools are children of teachers, and one fourth of children in school are dependents of teachers," he said. The Sierra Leone News Agency quoted Minah as saying the union's "stay home" action was not aimed at the government, but "simply meant to correct the ills that have and would continue to frustrate the teaching field, thereby jeopardising the chances of government’s quest for quality education for the children of this nation."

Diamond giant De Beers said it will guarantee from Monday that all diamonds it sells did not originate in rebel-controlled areas of Africa. Last month the company, which mines 50 percent of the world's diamonds and controls the sales of 70-80 percent of the world's diamond output, said its London-based Central Selling Organisation would assure buyers that the stones had not been purchased in violation of United Nations sanctions and did not originate in any area of Africa controlled by rebel forces fighting against a legitimate government. The diamond industry has come under increasing pressure in recent months from the United Nations and from groups such as Global Witness and Partnership Africa Canada, which point to the role of illicitly-mined diamonds in fueling conflicts in countries such as Sierra Leone, Angola, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While a De Beers executive said last month the company was confident it could ensure its diamonds came only from legitimate sources, diamond industry experts and pressure groups have stressed the difficulty in identifying the origin of individual stones, especially when they are mixed with diamonds which originate elsewhere. "It’s virtually inconceivable that one way or another, De Beers probably are picking up some Sierra Leone diamonds," Partnership Africa Canada's Ian Smillie told Radio Australia last month. "They’re not doing it deliberately, but...(De Beers) said it’s impossible to say where diamonds come from once you get a mixed package of diamonds." De Beers closed its office in Freetown in the 1980s, and has publicly questioned the extent of diamond reserves in Sierra Leone. One company statement suggested that Sierra  Leone's alluvial fields had been worked out and that the kimberlite pipes were "only as large as two tennis courts and even those are being mined at their roots." However, the Sierra Leone Web has learned that De Beers' Chief Buyer was among the high-ranking diamond company representatives who flew into Freetown last week for a strategic planning session on Sierra Leone's diamond industry. The U.S.-sponsored consultations, which began on Tuesday, look to reduce the illicit diamond trade, to develop a mission statement for Foday Sankoh's Commission for the Management of Strategic Resources, National Reconstruction and Development (CMRRD), and to examine the relationship between the CMRRD and the Ministry of Mineral Resources. Tuesday's meeting also included representatives of the Sierra Leone government and the RUFP. 

The People's Democratic Alliance Party (PDA) has secured its final certificate of registration from the Interim National Electoral Commission, the Sierra Leone News Agency (SLENA) reported on Monday. Registration allows the party to hold political meetings and to contest in the presidential and parliamentary elections due in 2001.

Joseph M. Kallon was elected chairman Sunday of the Sierra Leone People's Party U.K. and Ireland branch, according to Assistant Publicity and Propaganda Secretary Mohamed Alie Bah. Kallon was declared the victor after former chairman A.B. Torto withdrew his name prior to a second round of balloting. 

25 March: A second round of polio immunisations got underway in Sierra Leone Saturday as part of a campaign by the World Health Organisation to eradicate the crippling disease worldwide by the year 2000. With the cooperation of the country's former rebel leaders, whose troops still control vast areas of the country, health workers are targeting an estimated 840,000 children, including vulnerable populations in the previously inaccessible areas of Kono and Kailahun Districts. Vice President Albert Joe Demby, who launched the current round of National Immunisation Days, recalled that a similar effort undertaken in December 1998 stalled because of a rebel offensive. "Because of the renewed fighting the (first) round only covered the Western Area, Southern Province, Kenema and parts of Kailahun District," he said. "Only 45 percent coverage was achieved." Health officials say this time around they are expecting more than 90 percent coverage due to the commitment made to the programme by leaders of the country's various factions.

A 129-foot replica of the 19th century Spanish slave ship Amistad is due to be launched into Connecticut's Mystic River Saturday in the presence of U.S. and Sierra Leonean officials. In 1839 Sierra Leonean captives seized control of the original ship off the coast of Cuba and ordered the two surviving crew members to sail back to Africa. Instead the two Spaniards steered the ship to the U.S. coast and finally wound up in New York. The slaves were imprisoned and put on trial, while their cause became a rallying point for America's abolitionist movement. In 1841 the Supreme Court freed the slaves and a year later the 35 Africans who survived were returned to Sierra Leone. The replica, which will begin sea trials on June 1, will be a floating classroom to teach cooperation, leadership and diversity while travelling to international ports, and will be a living symbol of America's first civil rights case. Among those present at the launch will be Sierra Leone's Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs, Shirley Gbujama; Sierra Leone's Ambassador to the United States, John E. Leigh; 20 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Steven Spielberg, who directed the 1997 film "Amistad."

24 March: Deputy United Nations Secretary-General Louise Fréchette will address next week's Donor Conference for Sierra Leone in London, a U.N. spokesman said on Friday. The meeting, which will be co-chaired by Fréchette, British Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short and by a senior representative of the World Bank, will focus on reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction, the spokesman said. He added that Acting Emergency Relief Coordinator Carolyn McAskie would lead the discussion on humanitarian issues.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) will provide $2.7 million in food assistance over the next six months to ex-combatants participating in the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme, and provide targeted assistance for relief and recovery of refugees, returning refugees, and internally displaced persons. Letters of understanding were signed at an official ceremony on March 21 by the WFP's Representative in Sierra Leone, Patrick Buckley, and the Minister of Development and Economic Planning. "The food is available and we are currently working out the operational details with the NCDDR (National Commission for Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration)," Buckley said on Friday. "Only those ex-combatants being demobilised in the centres will receive food aid." WFP will appeal for funds for the two operations and for special operations for logistical support at the Sierra Leone Donors Conference to be held in London on March 27. Meanwhile, the WFP has carried out targeted feeding programmes in RUF-controlled areas of Bombali and Tonkolili Districts. Various emergency school feeding programmes were initiated between March 15-18, and food is being distributed to school children in Makeni and Lunsar in collaboration with Caritas-Makeni.

23 March: A UNAMSIL patrol attempting to travel from Kailahun to Buedu was obstructed by a local RUF commander, who said prior permission was required from RUF/RUFP leader Foday Sankoh for the patrol to go forward, a U.N. spokesman said on Thursday. U.N. peacekeepers will make another attempt to go to Buedu on Thursday, the spokesman said.

British aid worker Ian Janeck, who contracted Lassa Fever while working in Sierra Leone, has died at the Coppets Wood Hospital in north London. Although his condition improved briefly after he was given anti-viral drugs, he developed a chest infection and his condition deteriorated. A hospital spokeswoman said he died of heart failure. Janeck, in his early 50s and from Chatham, Kent, was working for a private firm under contract to Britain's Department for International Development, helping to teach former combatants the skills they would need to re-adapt to life as civilians. 

According to medical sources in Kenema, a number of women abductees returning from regions controlled by the RUF have died in recent weeks from malnutrition and infection. Doctors stated that twelve women and children died in the past week alone of complications from physical abuse, poor medical treatment and malnourishment they experienced in RUF-controlled areas. According to a United Nations spokesman, doctors strongly suspect that HIV/AIDS or other sexually-transmitted diseases and infections from injuries caused by rape and sexual abuse contributed to the women's weakened condition. A U.N. human rights officer went to Kenema on Wednesday to assess the availability of health and social services for victims of rape and sexual abuse.

The U.N. camp at Lakka which houses former child combatants was attacked Tuesday evening by area residents with machetes and stones, UNICEF representative Joanna van Gerpen told the U.N. Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) on Thursday. "A minor trigger escalated into quite a serious security incident but now the situation is calm," van Gerpen said. According to UNICEF, three Lakka Camp residents were injured in the disturbances: One suffered burns after falling into a fire and two received lacerations. Freetown's Concord Times newspaper reported Wednesday that "at least two deaths were recorded and unspecified number of local residents wounded," but UNICEF said Thursday they had received no reports of  casualties among local residents. IRIN said UNAMSIL and ECOMOG forces intervened during the night and that by Wednesday morning the situation was "under control but still tense."

CARE, working with three other relief agencies, World Vision, the U.N. World Food Programme and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, delivered 67 tons of emergency food rations and supplies Thursday to 4,500 residents of Masanga, about 16 miles southeast of Makeni, according to CARE's Director in Sierra Leone, Nick Webber. "This is the first such distribution to be undertaken in the area by humanitarian agencies for almost 18 months," Webber said in a press statement. "Operations have been severely constrained by insecurity." CARE staff also completed registration of internally displaced persons at Masanga and issued identification cards to those in need of emergency assistance, entitling them to receive food and supplies to last one month. "This distribution was considered extremely important as a substantially large number of identified beneficiaries are lepers who do not possess or have access to survival coping mechanisms that others may have," Webber said. "The humanitarian situation in this area has been of great concern to the government. CARE's registration of families will enable expeditious delivery of both emergency food rations and other essentials to those most in need."

22 March: In 1999 Sierra Leone became the world's most dangerous country for journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in its annual report "Attacks on the Press in 1999," released on Wednesday. The CPJ documented ten journalists killed in the line of duty, with numerous others threatened, attacked or imprisoned. "The combined rebel forces of the RUF and the AFRC viewed all journalists as 'enemies'," the CPJ said. "During a bloody three-week occupation of the capital, Freetown, in January, rebel forces executed at least eight journalists, some together with their families, before being ousted by ECOMOG. Rebel forces also damaged or destroyed the Freetown offices of several news organizations, including those of the independent Concord Times and Standard Times." A ninth journalist was killed by ECOMOG soldiers in February, while a tenth, Expo Times News Editor Conrad Roy, died in April after contracting tuberculosis while detained at Pademba Road Prison. Roy received no medical treatment until four days before his death at the Lakka TB Hospital. "Since the civil war began, in 1991, the Sierra Leonean press has faced harassment, threats, and censorship — all in the name of 'national security," the CPJ wrote. "Journalists have been attacked by virtually every party to the conflict, including successive military juntas, rebel forces, civilian governments, peacekeeping troops, civil militia, and, until early 1997, even South African mercenaries fighting in Sierra Leone."

A consultative meeting between President Kabbah and senior military officers has decided that all members of the former Sierra Leone Army be reintegrated into the restructured army pending selection by a neutral panel, Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service (SLBS) reported on Wednesday. Members of the RUF and the CDF who wish to join the army would be screened by a neutral and independent panel. The SLA officers present undertook the responsibility of ensuring that their colleagues who had not yet disarmed do so immediately. They also pledged to consult on initiatives to improve stability and security in the country. According to SLBS, the officers also raised the issues of benefits for retired soldiers, salary conditions and other benefits. President Kabbah stressed that the government's goal was to develop a highly professional army capable of safeguarding Sierra Leone's territorial integrity and independence and well as the safety and prosperity of its citizens. He added that the promotions would be based solely on merit and that the new military force would reflect the ethnic makeup of the country. Kabbah also announced that the British government was prepared to sponsor 50 officers to train at the Ghana Staff College. British High Commissioner Peter Penfold said Britain was committed to helping the government to restructure the army, but warned that his country was only prepared to spend money on a military that understood its role in a modern democracy, and which would not resort to making coups. He added that in addition to the 50 officers who would train in Ghana, Britain would also be training military cadres and advisors. Also named as present at the meeting were Vice President Albert Joe Demby, ECOMOG force commander Major-General Gabriel Kpamber, UNAMSIL force commander Major-General Vijay Jetley, Chief of Defence Staff General Maxwell Khobe and Depute Defence Minister and CDF Coordinator Sam Hinga Norman.

Former child combatants have rioted at a U.N.-run rehabilitation camp at Lakka, 12 miles west of Freetown, burning houses and overturning vehicles, police said on Wednesday. According to the Associated Press, the rioting began Tuesday night after an argument among the young people at the camp, and continued on Wednesday. UNICEF Protection Officer Roisin de Burca was quoted as saying at least three people were treated for injuries at a Freetown military hospital. Police were deployed to the village late Tuesday and calm was restored Wednesday, the AP said. 

About 2,500 people demonstrated in Freetown Tuesday against the recruitment of child soldiers and for their early reunification with their families, the U.N. Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) reported. The demonstrators included representatives of U.N. agencies, human rights organisations, educational institutions and civil society groups. RUFP spokesman Eldred Collins represented RUF/RUFP leader Foday Sankoh. Senior AFRC officers also attended. The march, which was organised by the Catholic charity Caritas, aimed to sensitise the community and signatories to the Lome Peace Accord to the urgent need to stop using children in armed conflict and to release those still held by armed factions, IRIN said. According to UNICEF, only about 1,500 of an estimated 5,000 child combatants have been demobilised so far. Of the estimated 10,000 children who were abducted by armed groups, only half have been reunited with their families.

21 March: President Kabbah swore in Monday members of a new Electoral Commission ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due next year. Under Sierra Leone's constitution, the five-member Commission is charged with the supervision of voter registration and with conducting presidential, parliamentary and local government elections. The new commissioners were identified as retired police inspector general Walter Nicol as Chief Electoral Commissioner; James Borbor Paine, Commissioner North; Francis Hindowa, Commissioner South; Bubuakei Aruna, Commissioner East and Alhaji Musa King, Commissioner Western Area. Members of the independent Electoral Commission are appointed by the president after consultation with political party leaders, and their appointments are subject to parliamentary approval. According to presidential spokesman Septimus Kaikai, one of the Commission's first tasks would be to compile a voter registration list.

Additional peacekeeping troops from Nigeria, Jordan, Zambia, Bangladesh and India will join the UNAMSIL force in Sierra Leone by July, bring the United Nations force up to its authorised strength of 11,100, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Bernard Miyet said in Freetown on Tuesday. According to the Sierra Leone News Agency (SLENA), Miyet told reporters at the Hill Station Lodge Tuesday that UNAMSIL would move quickly to deploy its full strength in the shortest possible time. "Everyone, and I would say the RUF in particular, recognised now that UNAMSIL was a fully legitimate ... and neutral peacekeeping force in this country and that its deployment should have to be facilitated and accepted by everyone, he said." The U.N. is expecting to deploy one additional battalion of Nigerian troops, two battalions from Jordan, one each from Zambia and Bangladesh, and one more battalion from India. Miyet said all roadblocks erected by the factions would be removed within two weeks. He stressed the importance to the peace process of elections, disarmament, and restructuring of the armed forces and the police. President Kabbah told reporters he had proposed a meeting with senior officers of the ex-SLA on Wednesday "to discuss and address issues relating to their positions in the army, the reintegration of other ranks and also to consult them on all aspects of their concern," SLENA said.  

20 March: United Nations peacekeepers who deployed in the RUF stronghold of Kailahun Thursday have found the situation for civilians "grim," with widespread hunger, no water and no medicine, UNAMSIL Public Information Officer Philip Winslow told the Sierra Leone Web on Monday. Winslow said an RUF hospital in the town had about 16 patients, including four RUF fighters with bullet and shrapnel wounds 8-12 months old, unhealed due to lack of medicine. "The patients as a result have muscle wasting and partial paralysis," Winslow said, adding that UNAMSIL would evacuate them to Freetown for treatment. Other patients were reported to be suffering from tuberculosis, dysentery, malaria and anemia. UNAMSIL found between 2,000 and 2,500 residents in Kailahun, mostly members of the RUF and their dependents, and a total absence of commercial activity. "Kailahun changed hands several times between the SLA and RUF during fighting; departing troops looted," said Winslow, who reported the town had suffered "widespread destruction, with hardly a house undamaged." The UNAMSIL spokesman said roads to Kailahun were unusable by any vehicle over 2.5 tonnes. Bridges and culverts are broken and extensive roadwork needs to be done. "For now, Kailahun is totally isolated except by helicopter," he said. Winslow said UNAMSIL's priority was to dig wells for its own use and to augment the civilian water supply. Meanwhile, the six military observers will begin patrolling to Buedu and beyond to assess needs to that non-governmental organisations can begin supplying humanitarian assistance. Winslow said UNAMSIL was doing reconnaissance for a DDR camp to be set up in coming weeks. UNAMSIL civilian police (CIVPOL) also did reconnaissance planning to return Sierra Leonean police to the area in coming weeks as part of the U.N.'s efforts to help the government re-establish state authority over the area, he said. 

The condition of a British aid worker who contracted Lassa Fever while working in Sierra Leone has deteriorated, doctors said on Monday. A statement by the Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust, which operates Coppets Wood Hospital in North London, said Ian Janeck's condition was giving cause for concern. "Although the patient responded to anti-viral therapy as soon it was started over a week ago, he developed respiratory disease and had to be put on a ventilator," the statement said. "He has now developed a chest infection." Janeck, from Chatham in Kent, was airlifted to Britain two weeks ago after contracting the highly-infectious disease. He was working for a private firm under contract to Britain's Department for International Development, helping to teach former combatants the skills they would need to re-adapt to life as civilians. 

United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Bernard Miyet met Monday with President Kabbah on the second day of his three-day visit to Sierra Leone. A U.N. spokesman in New York said Miyet also visited two disarmament camps and centres for ex-child combatants and children separated from their parents. He also visited several UNAMSIL team sites in the country, the spokesman said. Miyet was scheduled to meet later in the day with RUF/RUFP leader Foday Sankoh and AFRC leader and CCP Chairman Johnny Paul Koroma.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson opened the U.N. Commission on Human Rights' annual forum in Geneva Monday with a call on the body to investigate allegations of gross human rights violations around the world. Robinson said the Commission was meant to "embody the conscience of humanity for a world of peace and development grounded in respect for human rights." The former Irish president told the Commission that in Sierra Leone, "The atrocities which have been perpetrated, including the killing and maiming of children, are an affront to the conscience of the world."

19 March: In what is being hailed as a breakthrough in the peace process, UNAMSIL has deployed 107 Indian peacekeeping troops and 6 military observers in Kailahun town, a major stronghold of the RUF. UNAMSIL force commander Major-General Vijay Jetley, who visited the area on Saturday, told reporters the troops were deployed on Thursday. He noted the civil war had left much of Kailahun in ruins, and said many of the town's civilians appeared hungry. Jetley added that engineers would be improving the roads as quickly as possible to allow aid to reach the area. Oluyemi Adeniji, the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Representative to Sierra Leone, said the deployment would give the RUF a chance to show it stood by the peace agreement signed last year in Lomé, Togo. "Successive deployments in rebel-held territory will change the image of the RUF to the outside world," he said.

United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Bernard Miyet said he would press for adherence to the terms of the Lomé Peace Accord during his three-day visit to Sierra Leone, which began on Sunday. Miyet said he wanted to expand deployment of U.N. peacekeeping troops in Sierra Leone. In February the U.N. Security Council increased the authorised strength of the peacekeeping force from 6,000 to 11,100 troops. As of 1 March, 7,391 UNAMSIL personnel had been deployed in the country, including 260 military observers. "We're already working very hard on the expanded troops and have commitments to the new battalions from different countries," Miyet said. "We hope that within three to four months we will have all of them in Sierra Leone." As of the beginning of March UNAMSIL had deployed in Freetown, Lungi, Port Loko, Lunsar, Masiaka, Makeni, Magburaka, Kenema, Daru, Mile 91, Bo and Moyamba.

18 March: Vice President Albert Joe Demby stressed Saturday the necessity of establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as required by the Lomé Peace Accord. "Government has already put in place the mechanism for the setting up of the truth and reconciliation commission," Demby said on state radio. "Amnesty alone is not enough to persuade the people to forgive." Under the terms of the peace agreement signed last year between the government and the RUF, combatants received a blanket amnesty for war crimes committed during Sierra Leone's eight-year long civil war. Demby also blamed delays in the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme on late payment of funds promised by international donors. "A number of pledges have been made by the international community that are yet to be fulfilled," he said. "Ex-combatants are willing to disarm, to surrender their weapons in exchange for money and since the money is not available it is indeed a setback."

Sierra Leone Teachers Union leaders will meet Monday with Vice President Albert Joe Demby, the Parliamentary Committee on Education and civil society groups in an effort to avert an impending teachers strike, the Sierra Leone News Agency reported on Saturday. The SLTU has threatened labour action if government failed to address its grievances by 20 March. The union's complaints include late payment of salaries, backlog payments, and forced retirement of teachers which union leaders allege violates the collective bargaining agreement signed between teachers and the government.

17 March: Amnesty International said Friday that "deliberate and arbitrary killings, rape and abductions of civilians by former rebel forces" are continuing to occur in Sierra Leone eight months after the signing of the Lomé Peace Accord. Amnesty International Legal Director Stephanie Farrior called on the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights (UNHCHR) to "call on former rebel leaders now in political office to exert their influence over their former fighters and urge them to end attacks on civilians." She noted that the blanket amnesty provided by the peace agreement did not extend to abuses committed after July 1999 and urged that those responsible be brought to justice. Amnesty International said abuses perpetrated during Sierra Leone's civil war "have been among the worst known" and pointed out that the U.N. did not recognise "that the amnesty applied '...to international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law'." Amnesty International urged the UNHCHR to investigate human rights abuses committed during the conflict in order to bring those responsible to justice.

United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations will arrive in Sierra Leone on Sunday, a U.N. spokesman said on Friday. Miyet is scheduled to meet with President Kabbah and other leaders, and will visit U.N. deployment sites and disarmament camps before leaving on Tuesday for Bamako, Mali.

16 March: The Sierra Leone government said Thursday it had no knowledge of a Togolese claim alleging Sierra Leone had offered President Gnassingbe Eyadema a diamond mine in gratitude for his role in facilitating the Lomé peace talks. "The Government of Sierra Leone is not aware of any such offer and will be seeking further clarification from the Togolese government," Information Minister Dr. Julius Spencer told the Sierra Leone Web. The Togolese government statement was issued in response to a United Nations report alleging Eyadema had violated U.N. sanctions imposed against Angola's UNITA rebels. According to the report, which was presented to the Security Council on Wednesday, Togo provided UNITA with false end-user certificates for arms actually destined for Angola. In once instance, the report alleged, Eyadema was given "a passport-sized packet of diamonds on (UNITA leader Jonas) Savimbi's behalf" as "a token of appreciation."

15 March: RUF/RUFP leader Foday Sankoh told parliamentarians Wednesday that he was committed to the peace process, but declined to support a seven-point resolution. "I am committed to the disarmament process, which I agree is slow. But Foday Sankoh alone is not responsible for its slowness," he said. The former rebel leader argued that a lack of "adequate and proper structures" was responsible for the slow pace of disarmament. "Proper arrangements for ex-combatants who are disarmed, accommodation and even money, is not available," he said. Sankoh reportedly told parliamentarians he would not order his fighters to disarm unless there was a simultaneous disarmament by other factions. Parliamentarians asked Sankoh to sign the seven-point resolution, a copy of which was subsequently obtained by the Sierra Leone Web, as written confirmation of his verbal commitment to the peace process. The resolution, which was read to Sankoh by Minority Leader Dr. Raymond Kamara, called on the former rebel leader to commit "within the shortest possible time" to removing all guns from RUF combatants and hand them over the UNAMSIL, to remove all roadblocks to allow for the movement of people throughout the country, to make all parts of the country accessible for the distribution of humanitarian assistance, to open all parts of the country to the deployment of UNAMSIL forces, to remove all combatants from areas of the country where they are located, to restore normal activities such as those of chiefs, local government authority and representatives of central authority, and to agree that there would be no elections until complete disarmament had been achieved. 

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) said Wednesday that the 600,000 Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees in Guinea have put great pressure on the environment in that country. In rural areas where the refugee camps are situated, the demand for food has led to deforestation which has had a severe impact on the biodiversity and water systems, UNEP said in a newly-released report. "Many displaced people have sought refuge in urban centres, where populations have increased sharply with resulting waste removal and water problems," said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer. "The authorities have simply not been able to cope with such a massive increase of population and in a number of areas sanitation management systems have completely collapsed."

Sierra Leone's former Expo Times newspaper returned Wednesday as an internet publication covering events in Sierra Leone from Europe. The Expo Times first appeared on the streets of Freetown in July 1995, and was one of the few newspapers to operate throughout the period of AFRC rule. The paper was forced to close in February 1998 when ECOMOG ousted the the junta from power, and Shaw fled to exile in Guinea. In October 1998 he went to France, where he was granted status as a political refugee. "Although the present political situation back home is one of peace and reconciliation, a position which my paper was strongly pushing for, my safety is still not guaranteed to warrant my return at this point in time," Shaw told the Sierra Leone Web. "Since I cannot return at this time, I've decided to re-launch my newspaper first online, and perhaps later have it print from London." He added he would reform and re-launch his newspaper in Freetown "when the situation improves further."

The RUF has released 212 child combatants in the Makeni area during the last ten days, Makeni Bishop George Biguzzi told the Rome-based Missionary Services News Agency (MISNA) late Tuesday. The children, 32 of whom were girls, were handed over to Caritas in Makeni where they are going through a rehabilitation programme being conducted at the Catholic seminary. 

Togo has rejected U.N. allegations that its president, Gnassingbe Eyadema, violated U.N. sanctions on Angola's UNITA rebels and traded them arms for diamonds as "not based on any credible evidence." A government statement claimed Sierra Leone had offered Eyadema a diamond mine out of gratitude for his role in the Lomé peace talks. "He declined the offer, just as he did with Zaire when the same offer was made to him by President Mobutu for his action in favour of peace on the continent," the statement said. "General Eyadema has never cashed in on his peace efforts by taking any precious stone."

The condition of a British aid worker who contracted Lassa Fever in Sierra Leone has been upgraded to satisfactory, doctors said on Wednesday. Staff members said the unidentified man would remain in isolation at Coppets Wood Hospital in north London until the virus cleared from his blood. Victims of the rare but deadly virus suffer a range of symptoms including high fever, headaches, diarrhoea, brain inflammation, nausea and internal bleeding. While anti-viral drugs help, there is no cure and the disease has a 20 percent mortality rate.

The Liberian government moved Wednesday to close down two independent radio stations, Star Radio and the Catholic Radio Veritas, which had frequently been critical of the government of President Charles Taylor. Star Radio was better known outside of Liberia for its internet news service which covered not only Liberia but frequently published news on Sierra Leone and on the plight of Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia. According to BBC correspondent Jonathan Paye-Layleh, Taylor's KISS-FM radio station reported the government had decided to close the two stations "because of a security threat created by what it called 'agent provocateurs' bent on abusing the press freedom now prevailing in Liberia." Dozens of heavily-armed soldiers and police surrounded the two radio stations throughout the day preventing journalists from entering, Paye-Layleh said.

Representatives of Sierra Leone's warring factions have agreed to remove all roadblocks throughout the country, the Sierra Leone News Agency (SLENA) reported on Tuesday. AFRC leader and CCP Chairman Johnny Paul Koroma, CDF coordinator and Deputy Defence Minister Sam Hinga Norman and Gibril Massaquoi, Special Assistant to RUF/RUFP leader Foday Sankoh, in a meeting at the Miatta Conference Centre aimed at working out modalities for a successful implementation of the disarmament process, also agreed to turn the manning of checkpoints over the UNAMSIL. The number of checkpoints should not exceed five each from Freetown to Kenema, Freetown to Kambia, or Freetown to Makeni, SLENA said. A humanitarian source in Freetown told the Sierra Leone Web on Wednesday that "There are two RUF checkpoints between Freetown and Makeni, whereas there are about ten (CDF and ECOMOG checkpoints) between Freetown and Bo." The parties also agreed that all mining activities should stop immediately and that UNAMSIL should deploy in all parts of the country and set up disarmament centres. Massaquoi was quoted as saying that the RUF had removed all roadblocks between Lunsar and Makeni and that UNAMSIL was free to deploy in the RUF's areas of operation. "Chief Hinga Norman in his reaction said the CDF are willing than all the factions to disarm and said that very soon their combatants will be ordered to disarm with or without money from the DDR, after all modalities would have been worked out," SLENA said.

14 March: RUF/RUFP leader Foday Sankoh said Tuesday he would honour a summons to answer questions in Parliament on Wednesday. Last week Sankoh rejected an invitation to appear before Parliament, arguing that his position as Chairman of the government's Commission for the Management of Strategic Resources, National Reconstruction and Development, which accords him the status of vice president, made him answerable only to the president. He told Reuters Monday that the earlier request to appear had not been made properly. "I see no reason why I should not go to Parliament if I am summoned the proper way. I will be there and I will answer all questions tomorrow," he said. Sankoh, whose commitment to peace was questioned Monday by members of the United Nations Security Council, insisted that his movement was committed to the peace process. "I have said over and over that the RUFP is committed to peace, but since the Lomé Peace Accord was signed...there are people who are bent on destroying that peace by provoking the RUFP and its leadership to going back to war," Sankoh said.

Some 3,500 Kamajor militiamen arrived at three Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) centres in Kenema District over the weekend, overwhelming efforts by NCDDR staff members to process them, BBC Bo correspondent Prince Brima said on Tuesday. "One DDR worker at the [Saima] Town reception centre told me that only a maximum of 200 ex-fighters could be registered and interviewed in a working day," Brima said. "According to U.N. personnel, the reintegration interview is the most lengthy process, and the only way to speed things up would be to recruit more staff at the reception centres. Yesterday 500 Kamajors turned up at one disarmament centre. 300 of them were told they would have to leave and return the next day." A diplomatic source described to the Sierra Leone Web at the weekend "intensive negotiation" with CDF leaders and ECOMOG officers during President Kabbah's visit to Kenema in late February, to disarm more than a "symbolic number" of CDF militiamen. "They were reluctant to disarm because of the RUF treatment of UNAMSIL," he said. Meanwhile, NCDDR Executive Secretary Dr. Francis Kai-Kai told the BBC Tuesday that in Kenema itself the NCDDR had the ability to disarm 400 ex-combatants at a time. "If you get a floodgate of over 1,000, what it means is that we take maybe a couple of days to get them through the system," he said. Kai-Kai said an NCDDR team was leaving for Kenema District and that more staff was being recruited to ensure the former combatants would be processed. In response to a suggestion that the RUF was failing to disarm, Kai-Kai acknowledged that "at this moment the RUF is not responding equally," especially in eastern Sierra Leone. "But as far as I also know, there is a commitment from the leadership to start disarming by the coming weekend," he said. Kai-Kai told the BBC Focus on Africa programme that of a total of 18,642 former combatants who had registered for the DDR programme, 3,662 were from the RUF. "It’s a long way to go because our estimate is we have 15,000 armed RUF men around the country," he added. He insisted that the DDR programme was "on track," but said what was needed was an "unequivocal declaration by Sankoh in terms of action as well, that he’s firmly behind this peace process as well." According to the United Nations, as of March 1 the number of disarmed former combatants stood at 17,191, comprising 4,051 from the RUF, 8,851 from the loyal and former Sierra Leone Army, and 4,289 from the CDF. At the DDR centre at Daru, set up early this year to accommodate former combatants from the RUF stronghold in Kailahun District, the U.N. called participation "negligible," with only 193 ex-combatants registered as of that date.

13 March: Members of the United Nations Security Council expressed disappointment Monday at the slow progress of the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration process in Sierra Leone, and stressed they "place great weight on the early implementation of all aspects" of the Lomé Peace Accord. "Council members call upon all signatories to the Lomé Agreement, and in particular Chairman Sankoh and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), to reaffirm and demonstrate a concrete commitment to the Lomé Peace Process by allowing the extension of state authority throughout Sierra Leone, in full cooperation with UNAMSIL and with the U.N. team as a whole, and by instructing the RUF membership to disarm and to surrender all weapons, including their heavy weapons, mines and anti-aircraft equipment," Council President Ambassador Karim Chowdhury of Bangladesh said in a statement read out following a briefing of Security Council members by Hédi Annabi, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations. U.N. members nations were advised to "enforce strictly" an international travel ban on former members of the AFRC military junta, while "concerned Sierra Leonean leaders" were reminded of their "obligation to obtain exemptions before traveling abroad without exception." In his remarks to the Council, Annabi said there had been some headway in establishing bodies envisaged by the Lomé Peace Accord, but "little progress in disarmament in the northern and eastern parts of the country, while rebel groups continued to interfere with humanitarian activities and UNAMSIL patrols and to harass the civilian population in those areas." Annabi told Council members the "often negative and confusing approach taken by Mr. Sankoh toward key elements of the peace process and the role entrusted to the United Nations" remained a cause for concern. "Quite understandably, the present situation gives rise to serious doubts about the commitment of Mr. Sankoh and the RUF to the faithful implementation of the peace agreement," he said.

Britain's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, told the Security Council Monday that while President Kabbah had demonstrated his readiness to make important compromises to ensure an end to conflict in Sierra Leone, "I did not get the same sense of commitment to peace from the other main factional leaders, particularly Foday Sankoh." Greenstock, who visited Sierra Leone last week, said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was "absolutely right" when he pointed to Sankoh and the RUF as the main impediment to UNAMSIL's deployment and to the further progress of the peace process. "It is absolutely unacceptable to the U.N. that any of the parties who have signed an agreement should be in some way retaining their armed forces or their weaponry and not handing it in,'' Greenstock said following the session. "The Council's authority, in support of the Lomé Peace Agreement, is being thwarted here.'' Greenstock, whose visit to Freetown coincided with that of British Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short, said she had repeatedly asked Sankoh to stop blocking UNAMSIL troops and to speed up the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme. "Sankoh only bristled in reply, claiming that the RUF were doing no such thing, that he had never authorised killing as a policy, that the RUF had not deprived (a battalion of Guinean peacekeeping troops) of their weapons, and that he never sold a single diamond to pay for arms," Greenstock said. "There is, of course, independent evidence that the RUF have done all of these things." Greenstock told reporters that Sankoh appeared "confused" and "worried about his own position." "I think there's an element there in his thinking that he must retain a military option still," he said.

Sierra Leone's Deputy Permanent United Nations Representative, Ambassador Sylvester Rowe, acknowledged Monday that the peace process has been slow with little progress toward disarmament in the northern and eastern parts of the country. "The Government of Sierra Leone has consistently demonstrated its commitment to all aspects of the peace process," Rowe told Security Council members. "Regrettably, we cannot say the same for the other party to the Lomé Peace Agreement. Indeed, the finger should be directed at the main stumbling block, the main obstacle that stands in the way of disarmament and the peace process." Rowe maintained that incidents on the ground and "certain utterances by the RUF leader" justified observations expressed last week by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the RUF needed to take "convincing measures" to dispel doubts about its commitment to the peace process. The ambassador said President Kabbah recently visited Bo, Pujehun and Kenema in an effort to "help break the cycle of distrust, suspicion and misconceptions" about disarmament. "In the areas he visited, and in response to the president’s appeal, there was, not just a symbolic, but an impressive disarmament exercise by the (pro-government) Civil Defence Forces (CDF)," he said. The CDF told us, and they have demonstrated, their willingness to disarm completely, and speedily, in the interest of peace." Rowe said Kabbah had challenged "all those who say 'there is no more war in Sierra Leone' but who refuse to disarm, to remove the threat of war which still hangs over the heads of the people, namely the weapons of war." Said Rowe: "Mr. Sankoh should not hold the entire nation hostage. We know, and we have evidence of this, that thousands of former RUF fighters are ready and willing to disarm." Rowe called for a target date for disarmament and demobilisation, and he urged the RUF to provide full and complete information on the number of combatants under its command, and to ensure that they complied with the DDR process. "How can we speak of national reconciliation when ex-combatants still carry their weapons?," he asked. "How can anyone expect the victims of atrocities to forgive when the perpetrators of those atrocities are still hanging on to their weapons?"

RUF fighters have once again blocked the deployment of UNAMSIL troops in eastern Sierra Leone, despite a commitment made Friday by RUF/RUFP leader Foday Sankoh to allow U.N. peacekeepers and humanitarian workers unhindered access to all parts of the country. According to a U.N. spokesman, 107 Indian UNAMSIL troops and six military observers bound for Koidu were stopped Monday because the rebels said they did not have "clearance to let an armed escort move forward." The U.N. troops returned to their base at Daru Monday afternoon, four hours after they had been stopped.

RUF/RUFP leader Foday Sankoh has agreed to appear before Parliament, Freetown's The Pool newspaper reported on Monday. Last week Sankoh declined an invitation from Parliament, arguing that his position as Chairman of the government's Commission for the Management of Strategic Resources, National Reconstruction and Development, which under the Lomé Peace Accord accords him the status of vice president, made him answerable only to the president. "Sankoh said he decided to back down on his defiant stance after holding consultative talks with his supporters, advisers, party executive and some prominent people, both local and foreign including the British Secretary of State for International Development, Claire Short," The Pool reported.

A British aid worker is in critical condition at a hospital in north London where he is being treated for the highly infectious disease Lassa Fever. The man, who was not identified, was flown by air ambulance from Freetown to London last Monday where he was admitted to University College Hospital. Doctors thought his condition was improving over the weekend after he was transferred to the high security infectious diseases unit at Coppetts Wood Hospital in Muswell Hill, north London. However, his lungs began failing on Saturday and he is now unconscious and being ventilated in a sealed tent. The ill man, said to be in his early 50s and from Kent, had been working in Sierra Leone since October for Crown Agents for Overseas Governments and Administration, a private firm working under contact for Britain's Department for International Development. He had been working at a demobilisation centre, helping to teach former combatants the skills they would need to re-adapt to life as civilians.

As the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the U.N. World Health Agency (WHO) prepare to administer a new round of polio vaccinations to children in rebel-held areas of Sierra Leone, UNICEF Director for Sierra Leone Joanna van Garpen has described for the Voice of America the process by which the agencies negotiated a temporary truce least year in order to hold National Immunisation Days. "Since the peace agreement the government, international agencies, local NGOs were gradually trying to figure our how to work with each other," van Garpen said. "So beginning in October, around the time of the first round, we had mobilised some of the existing health workers who were in Freetown but who were willing to go back and reach into some of these areas. And we also involved representatives of the RUF and the AFRC in the planning process for the National Immunisation Days. So they assisted in contacting people in areas that continued to be controlled by RUF and AFRC and informing them that health workers would be coming out to organise the immunisation processes, and greatly facilitated access to those areas." The WHO is in the midst of a global campaign to eradicate polio by the year 2000, but regional conflicts have continued to hamper efforts by health workers to reach affected populations. 

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday at the start of an official visit to the United Kingdom. A spokesman said the two leaders discussed challenges facing the U.N. mission in Sierra Leone as well as U.N. peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Annan begins a two-day official visit to France on Wednesday for discussions with French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, according to a French foreign ministry statement. The talks will center on major political issues drawing international attention, including the conflicts in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the statement said.

A donors conference will be held in London on March 27 to seek funds for Sierra Leone's peace process and development efforts.

8 March: UNAMSIL completed a two-day operation Wednesday to destroy unexploded ordinance in the Masiaka area, according to a UNAMSIL press release. "On Tuesday, UNAMSIL's Indian Engineering Company blew up 10 cluster bombs and one mortar bomb that had been found near the roadside at Sumbuya, 42 kilometres east of Freetown. The bombs were in an unstable condition and posed a serious threat to the local population," the UNAMSIL statement said. "On Wednesday, the demolition experts destroyed a collection of 59 rocket-propelled grenades, mortar bombs and other ammunition at Laia Junction, 56 kilometres east of Freetown. The bombs and other ammunition had been fired, but failed to explode during the war, and over months or sometimes years had been covered in grass and weeds." BBC correspondent Lansana Fofana said the exercise at Laia Junction, near the village of Masumana, had been protested by a group of AFRC soldiers still holding out in the bush.  "Their so-called Third Eagle Battalion base is located less than 100 metres from the U.N.’s reception centre and the scene of the exercise," Fofana told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme. "At least on two occasions the rebel soldiers replied the U.N.’s explosions with gunfire from their nearby jungle base, and three of them, including a Captain Fufu who said he was commander, emerged from the bush to express their fears. But after a brief discussion with U.N. officers on the ground the rebels backed down and the exercise was successfully completed."

Freetown's The Pool newspaper launched its online edition on Wednesday, joining the Concord Times as the only two of Sierra Leone's many local newspapers to have established an internet presence. The Pool first appeared in Freetown in October 1992, but was denied registration the following year under new press restrictions promulgated by the National Provisional Ruling Council. The newspaper was re-established in 1996, and was one of the few to operate throughout the period of AFRC military rule. It was forced to cease publication in 1998 after the AFRC was removed from power, and only resumed operations in August 1999, a month after the signing of the Lomé Peace Accord.

The Albert Academy Alumni Association (Washington Metropolitan Chapter) said Wednesday its members had donated Le 8.4 million ($3,360) to their alma mater during a recent visit to Freetown by group members. The gift included Le 2.8 million to a scholarship fund to provide tuition, books, uniforms and other fees for 40 students, Le 2.8 million to refurbish the school's toilets, and Le 2.8 million as a bonus for teachers. The association is currently raising funds to fix the school's drainage system, the group said in a press release.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced Wednesday a major review of U.N. peacekeeping operations as part of an ongoing effort to enhance the efficiency of U.N. missions and to prevent the recurrence of disasters such as those in Rwanda and Srebrenica. "We need a clear set of recommendations on how to do better in future in the whole range on UN activities in the area of peace and security," Annan said in announcing the launch of the U.N.'s "Study on United Nations Peace Operations." He said that for U.N. peacekeeping efforts to succeed in the future it was necessary to have a clear idea of what had gone wrong in the past as well as to build on the "considerable successes" of former U.N. peacekeeping missions. "We must not promise too much, or raise expectations higher than are justified by the will of Governments to act, but we must do whatever we can to raise the standards of international behaviour and responsibility," Annan said. "Partly it is a question of being clearer about what we are trying to do, what kind of forces we need to do it, what are the conditions in which different kinds of mission are appropriate," he added. "What do you do, for instance, if the peace you are trying to keep breaks down and large numbers of civilians are in danger of being massacred?"  He also stressed to have the right structure for the U.N. Secretariat and proper planning and organisation with clear lines of command, control, accountability and coordination. The United Nations Security Council approved a 6,500-strong peacekeeping force for Sierra Leone last October. The authorised strength of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) was increased to 11,100 in January, along with an expanded mandate. As of March 1, about 7,500 U.N. peacekeeping troops had actually been deployed.

Outside assistance has reached rebel-held areas of northern Sierra Leone for the first time in 18 months, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said in New York on Wednesday. The agency said it was able to deliver school books and other supplies to more than 15,000 Sierra Leonean children in the Makeni and Lunsar areas. A UNICEF assessment made following last year's peace agreement "found schools overflowing with children, but without textbooks and essential equipment such as blackboards, chalk and pencils," a U.N. statement said, adding: "There was also a shortage of teachers since many have fled the area and have not yet returned."

The United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Bernard Miyet, left Wednesday on a trip that will take him to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Uganda and Sierra Leone. Miyet is travelling as part of a mission despatched by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. While in the DRC he will "seek the full support essential to deploy the more than 5,500-strong military observer mission," a U.N. spokeswoman said in New York.

United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hédi Annabi briefed a closed session of the U.N. Security Council Wednesday on the current situation in Sierra Leone. Annabi told Security Council members that the human rights situation in Sierra Leone remained a cause for serious concern, especially in the Port Loko area where ex-SLA troops from the nearby base at Okra Hill had been blamed for human rights abuses including looting, house burnings, harassment and abduction of civilians, rape and sexual abuse. He said there had also been reports of harassment, abduction and extortion in areas controlled by the RUF, but added that the situation had generally improved in parts of the country where UNAMSIL had been deployed and that there had been a significant increase in the release of children held by the factions. Annabi said that more than 290 children had been released, while UNICEF has documented more than 2,000 cases of abducted children .

7 March: Three members of the U.S. Congress who have worked to secure peace in Sierra Leone will be among those discussing their concerns about progress toward peace in a public briefing Wednesday in Washington, D.C. Representatives Tony Hall and Frank Wolf visited Sierra Leone and refugee camps in Guinea last December, and are currently working on legislation to curtail the import of illegally-mined diamonds into the United States. Representative Sam Gejdenson, the Ranking Democrat on the House Committee on International Relations, is drafting legislation to support peace-building efforts now underway. Also testifying will be David Scheffer, the U.S. Special Ambassador for War Crimes; Steve Coll, Managing Editor of the Washington Post; John Ernest Leigh, Sierra Leone's Ambassador to the U.S.; Kathryn Jones, U.N. Desk Officer for Sierra Leone; Sharon Wilkinson, Director of the U.S. State Department's Office of West African Affairs; and Barbara Smith, vice president of International Rescue Committee.

21 North American professionals from the U.S.-based charity World Hope International, working with a team of 35 Sierra Leoneans, fitted 160 upper-extremity amputees from Sierra Leone's civil war with 188 socketless prosthetic limbs, World Hope mission leader Kim Kargbo told the Sierra Leone Web on Tuesday. The North American team was comprised of professionals from the fields of prosthetics, orthopaedic surgery, occupational therapy, nursing, counseling, pastoral care, journalism and logistics. The group also opened a permanent Amputee Care Centre in Freetown to provide services to the amputees such as adjustment and maintenance of the prosthetic devices, occupational and physical therapy, counseling and trauma healing, and occupational and vocational counseling and referrals. "Response to the limbs was overwhelmingly positive on the part of both the amputees, as well as government officials," Kargbo said. She added that amputees who had been fitted with similar limbs last year were "still wearing and using their limbs," and that three of them had worked for World Hope on a temporary basis during the two-week intensive fitting clinic. The charity is planning to send a team of surgeons and medical professionals to Sierra Leone in May to perform revision surgeries on residual limbs of amputees in need of such intervention. "A fabrication lab is being researched and is targeted to begin manufacturing lower limb prosthetics in May or June using primarily local materials and labour," Kargbo said.

Children who witnessed atrocities during the January 1999 rebel invasion of Freetown have shown "dramatic improvement in traumatic stress symptoms and a restored sense of hopefulness" after participating in a trauma healing and expression programme, according to a new study by Childreach. The study, which Childreach said was the first such assessment of Sierra Leone's surviving children, was based on a four-week programme called RapidEd, operated jointly by Childreach (better known in Sierra Leone as Plan International), Sierra Leone's Ministry of Education, and UNESCO. Starting in October 1999, 315 children were interviewed before and after participating in the four-week programme, which was designed to address the children's emotional well-being as well as their educational needs. Through RapidEd, the children confront their feelings through storytelling, music and play. The study found that children who completed the programme experienced significant reduction in sleep disturbances, intrusive images, and anxiety about future well-being, as well as a 70 percent improvement in concentration at school. "The cruelty and sadistic nature of the atrocities are amongst the worst crimes against innocent children and women in the past 15 years," said RapidEd Director Dr. Leila Gupta, an expert on the psycho-social effects of war-related violence on children. "Thus far, the findings are very compelling in terms of the significant reduction in traumatic stress symptoms." 

6 March: Joanna van Garpen, United Nations Children's Fund Director for Sierra Leone, travelled to Kailahun District on Monday to assess health and educational needs of children in the RUF stronghold. "I welcome you to Kailahun District, since you are the first U.N. official who has driven from Freetown by road, which clearly indicates that the RUFP is committed to peace," said local RUF commander Harris Momoh. According to Reuters, van Garpen was greeted by RUF fighters, and by hundreds of children, many of whom had not attended school in years. Lieutenant-Colonel Abdel Morsen, who heads the UNAMSIL force at Daru, expressed concern at the slow pace of disarmament in the area. Only 17 of the 238 former combatants who had handed in their weapons so far were from the RUF; the rest were members of the former Sierra Leone Army. The Daru Disarmament Centre was set up in January. Momoh complained that former RUF fighters were not being offered employment opportunities within the new Sierra Leone Army.

RUF/RUFP leader Foday Sankoh has refused an invitation to appear before Parliament and explain why the disarmament process is proceeding so slowly, the BBC reported on Monday. In a letter to the Speaker of the House, Sankoh argued that his position as Chairman of the government's Commission for the Management of Strategic Resources, National Reconstruction and Development (MCRRD), which under the Lomé Peace Accord confers upon him the protocol status of vice president, he is answerable only to the president — not to Parliament. He added that his duties as leader of the RUF Party and his efforts to disarm and demobilise combatants would not permit him to honour the invitation.

The African Islamic Society of Boston, an organisation of Sierra Leonean Muslims in the U.S. state of Massachusetts, announced Monday it had donated $1,000 for the amputees in Sierra Leone. The cheque was presented to Sierra Leone's Ambassador to the United States, John Leigh, by Mohammed S. Barrie, Alusaine K. Deen and Mohammed Sesay, the organisation said in a press release.

4 March: Hundreds of displaced Kono District residents demonstrated in Freetown Saturday, demanding that the government put an end to illicit diamond mining in the district and allow them to return to their homes, eight months after the Lomé Peace Accord was to have ended Sierra Leone's civil war. As demonstrators converged on the National Stadium from all parts of the capital, and from as far away as displaced camps in Grafton and Waterloo, Kono Youth Movement Chairman Sahr Yambasu told the BBC the reason for the protest. "We want to register our grievances to the central government and all the stakeholders in the peace accord," he told BBC correspondent Lansana Fofana. "We have [words indistinct], we have cried, we have suffered, but they are not paying attention. And our people are suffering in refugee camps, in displaced camps. They are there without food, anything absolutely, and Kono has been battered absolutely. There’s nothing that we can do now, and we want to go home. We have done everything possible for them to see reason, but they don’t want to. We want to go home, that is our cry to the international community, to the stakeholders and all parties concerned. We want to go home! We want to go home!" According to the BBC, RUF/RUFP leader Foday Sankoh, whose followers still control the diamond-rich district, was invited to address the demonstrators but failed to appear. Local RUF commanders have repeatedly turned back U.N. peacekeepers attempting to deploy in Kono. In a statement issued following the demonstration, Gibril Massaquoi denied that the RUFP or its leadership had received an invitation to address the rally. "It seems that these demonstrators have not grasped the reasons for the slow pace of deployment of peacekeepers and the DDR program," said Massaquoi, who serves as Special Assistant to Sankoh. "The RUFP again states here that the Lomé Peace Agreement calls clearly for several structures to be laid for lasting and sustainable peace in Sierra Leone...Disarmament in Kono will go on as soon as adequate and safe structures have been put in place in line with the letter and spirit of the Lomé Peace Agreement." Massaquoi alleged that Saturday's demonstration had been "openly pushed by politicians using (the protesters) for their own selfish purposes," adding: "The road to Kono and its township is presently safe for all civilians and has been thus for a long time now."

Britain announced Friday the appointment of Alan Jones to succeed Peter Penfold as Her Majesty's High Commissioner in Freetown. He will take up his post in May. Jones (full name David Alan Jones), 46, is a career diplomat with Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office. His most recent postings have included Deputy High Commissioner in Dar-es-Salaam (1996-99) and Deputy Head of Mission in Luanda (1993-96). 

The Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, Oluyemi Adeniji, has expressed "great satisfaction" at the outcome of a mini-summit on Sierra Leone which took place in Bamako, Mali March 1-2. According to a UNAMSIL press release, the meeting focused on the hindrance of UNAMSIL troops, the extension of state administration all over the country, and access by humanitarian organisations. "The clarification by the ECOWAS Executive Secretary (Lansana Kouyate) of the misinterpretation of the Lomé Agreement as it concerns the creation and mandate of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force was particularly helpful, since that misinterpretation was seen by the meeting as being at the center of most of the problems impeding the implementation of the agreement," the statement said. "Following that clarification, the agreement of all participants in the meeting for the immediate removal by the RUF of obstacles to the deployment of UNAMSIL; the immediate return of the large quantities of weapons seized from the Guinean troops as well as those seized from the Kenyan troops; and the simultaneous removal of all roadblocks throughout the country by all combatants will immediately un-block the present impasse."

The Belgian government will strengthen controls on the diamond trade in Antwerp as part of an effort to clamp down on the illegal sale of gems originating in African conflict zones, the Belgian foreign ministry announced on Saturday. A foreign ministry statement said the government had instructed its diamond customs control office to curtail the import of gemstones from Sierra Leone and from areas controlled by Angola's UNITA rebels. "Since Antwerp is the world center for the import and export of diamonds, our country has been involved in this issue," the statement said. "Everything possible must be done to make sure the U.N. sanctions are applied and that, in general, the suffering of the people in countries torn apart by civil war, such as Angola and Sierra Leone, is alleviated." The Belgian government insisted that only a small part of the diamond trade in Africa could be linked to ongoing conflicts and the arms trade. "For many African nations, the diamond trade is an important and often essential sector for the development of their national economy," the statement said.

3 March: The presidents of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have ended a mini-summit in Bamako, Mali with a pledge that "no country will be used as a base to destabilise another country." The summit, which was chaired by Malian President and ECOWAS Chairman Alpha Oumar Konare, also called on the RUF to continue with the the disarmament process and to remove obstacles to the peace process. The rebel group was represented at the meeting by Trade and Industry Minister Mike Lamin and RUFP Protocol Officer Sheik Nabay. Lieutenant-Colonel Johnny Paul Koroma represented the AFRC and the Commission for the Consolidation of Peace. A United Nations spokesman in New York said the summit ended Thursday evening with a call on the RUF to return a large quantity of weapons its troops had seized from a Guinean battalion in January, and on the AFRC to return weapons taken from Kenyan UNAMSIL troops. It also urged all parties in Sierra Leone to remove roadblocks throughout the country and asked the U.N. to establish more disarmament centres. According to Malian Foreign Minister Modibo Sidibe, a follow-up meeting will be held in Freetown to assess how the pledges made in Bamako were being implemented by the various sides. "This will enable the holding of the meeting of the Joint Implementation Committee on the Lomé Peace Agreement to be held early April in Freetown," he told Malian state radio. "This meeting will assess again the implementation and adopt necessary measures. Better still, it has been decided that a summit meeting will be held in Conakry at a date to be announced. I think we can say that this mini-summit has been able to achieve some progress in the implementation of all the measures adopted by meeting of the Mano River Union ad hoc committee in Abuja last year."

Human Rights Watch alleged Friday that rebel troops were regularly committing atrocities in areas as close as 40 kilometers from Freetown, and called on UNAMSIL, ECOMOG and the Sierra Leonean security forces to intensify their efforts to end the abuses. The human rights group said it had documented numerous abuses committed in Port Loko District during January and February, an area nominally under government control, including 14 cases of rape (including of girls as young as 11 years old), 118 abductions, 3 murders, several cases of mutilation, forced labour, massive looting, ambushes, and training of child combatants. Most of the victims were civilians living in camps for internally displaced persons, and were attacked when they ventured out to look for food, wood or water, HRW said. Several of the attacks took place less than one kilometer from a checkpoint manned by ECOMOG, Sierra Leone Army soldiers, or UNAMSIL troops. Victims interviewed by HRW said most of the perpetrators had identified themselves as members of the former Sierra Leone Army, but some witnesses and victims said they were told the rebel units also included members of the RUF. All the abductees interviewed by HRW said the rebels had established bases at in the towns of Gbere-bana, Rofurawa, Mogboni, and Mabingbera, all within Port Loko District. HRW said that while the government acknowledged the presence of some 1,000 rebels in the district, the authorities have been reluctant to actively pursue the rebels or to intervene to protect the civilian population since the signing of the Lomé Peace Accord. "Where governments are unable or unwilling to protect human rights, the international community is legally entitled, if not obliged, to become involved," the HRW statement said. "In accepting that human rights is part of the UNAMSIL mandate, the U.N. must put into place tangible operating procedures to create a safer environment for Sierra Leone's internally displaced...The success of the Lomé Peace Accord should be measured not only in terms of how many combatants participate in the 'disarmament, demobilization and reintegration' process, but also how human rights protection and the rule of law are established."

2 March: President Kabbah, Guinean President Lansana Conte and Liberian President Charles Taylor held talks in Bamako Thursday with Malian President Alpha Oumar Konare on issues pertaining to the security of the sub-region. Konare, the current ECOWAS chairman, initiated the talks both to assess the peace process in Sierra Leone and also to address tensions between Guinea and Liberia, who accuse one another of backing each other's rebel movements. The talks on Sierra Leone were attended by a RUF delegation which included Trade and Industry Minister Mike Lamin and Sheik Nabay, while Lieutenant-Colonel Johnny Paul Koroma represented the AFRC and the Commission for the Consolidation of Peace, which he chairs. RUF/RUFP leader Foday Sankoh told the Pool newspaper that he had cancelled his plans to attend the conference "because I had an inkling that there were plans to arrest me." One source told the Sierra Leone Web on Thursday that the conference was convened to address Sankoh's February 24 letter to the Lomé Peace Accord guarantors alleging violations of the peace agreement.

The Sierra Leone Teachers' Union (SLTU) has issued a 21-day strike notice to the government warning that if problems affecting teachers are not addressed, the union would organise a sit-down strike, the Sierra Leone News Agency (SLENA) reported on Thursday. SLTU President Festus Minah accused Education Minister Dr. Alpha T. Wurie and ministry officials of having "waged a war against the union" because of its stance on late payment of teachers' salaries, backlog payments and forced retirement of teachers in violation of the Collective Agreement between the teachers and the government.

Makeni Bishop George Biguzzi has welcomed the decision by De Beers to sell only "rebel-free" diamonds as "undoubtedly a positive step towards eradicating the violence that has for years had a strong hold over Sierra Leone." In a statement published by the Rome-based Missionary Services News Agency (MISNA) on Tuesday, Biguzzi stressed the absolute necessity of ensuring local government control over national mineral resources. "It is not enough to sell only 'rebel free' diamonds," he said. "Everyone is well aware that in the last few years the rebels utilised a network of intermediaries for international smuggling. It therefore seems that a certificate to guarantee major correctness in the diamond business would be in the best interest of the country."

Allieu Ibrahim Kanu told the Preparatory Committee for the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons Thursday that Sierra Leone had witnessed intense horror, deprivation, wanton mass destruction and excessive suffering, due in large part to the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons and their proliferation. Kanu told the committee that mutilations, maimings and killings in Sierra Leone were a direct consequence of the illicit transfer of such weapons to rebel forces and unemployed youth, many of whom viewed the possession of arms as a means of subsistence. Kanu said the upcoming conference should building on existing protocols, both regional and sub-regional, to impose an embargo on the illicit production and distribution of small arms and light weapons. He also urged the conference to consider a ban on the sale of these weapons to countries sharing contiguous borders with areas of conflict.

The RUF appears to be building up its forces in the diamond mining town of Tongo, the BBC reported on Tuesday. Meanwhile, in an interview with Freetown's Pool newspaper, RUF/RUFP leader Foday Sankoh accused the pro-government Kamajor militia of rearming. "They are getting arms, let me tell you," he said. "Kamajors are in Bonthe, training daily. This is a threat to both the leadership of this country and the people of Sierra Leone." There has been no independent confirmation of either claim.

The Belgian government, under increasing international pressure to regulate its diamond industry, has announced the formation of a Diamond Task Force in an attempt to defuse criticism of the Antwerp diamond centre. "If that is what the United Nations wants, then we are prepared to allow permanent U.N. observers on the Antwerp diamond exchanges," Secretary of State for Foreign Trade Pierre Chevalier told the Groot-Bijgaarden De Standaard newspaper. Antwerp's High Diamond Council has come under fire recently for turning a blind eye to the purchase of illicitly-mined diamonds from areas of conflict, thus contributing to conflicts in countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. "Antwerp must not be made a scapegoat just because it is the world's largest diamond center," Chevalier said. "This government feels strongly about human rights, but we must beware of letting ethical principles be misused in an international competition." He acknowledged, however, that there was a problem. "In Africa diamond extraction finances wars instead of contributing to the welfare of nations and people," he said. "Antwerp diamond merchants also have a problem with this. They do not want to be viewed as warmongers." According to the newspaper, the Belgian government wants to help the High Diamond Council to export its expertise in a bid to counter the illegal gem trade. The Diamond Task Force also wants to put an end to the ambiguous status of the experts from the Diamond Office, who work for the Ministry of Economic Affairs but who are paid by the diamond sector.

1 March: Sierra Leone's Minister of Mineral Resources has welcomed a pledge by diamond mining conglomerate De Beers to sell only "rebel-free" diamonds, but urged the company to extend the ban to include all illegally mined or smuggled gemstones. "The Sierra Leone government is also concerned about the smuggling during peace time of diamonds which do not go through legal government channels," Alhaji Mohamed Deen told Reuters. He pointed out that diamond smuggling undermined government finances, and called for a system to distinguish legally exported diamonds from those that were smuggled. "We are urging De Beers to look into that aspect as well," he said.

RUF/RUFP leader Foday Sankoh said Wednesday that the moratorium on diamond mining he imposed in January had failed for lack of support. "The government failed to provide me with the structure of my commission to carry out my work," he told reporters. Under the terms of the Lomé Peace Accord Sankoh was made Chairman of the government's Commission for the Management of Strategic Resources, National Reconstruction and Development (CMRRD) with the protocol rank of vice president. He has on several occasions complained that the government has so far failed to provide him the facilities and resources necessary for the commission to carry out its mandate.

Refugees International (RI) called Wednesday for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to proceed slowly on the repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea and Liberia, arguing that "Sierra Leone is not yet ready to accommodate a returning wave of refugees." RI noted that the refugee situation had been slow to correct itself. "With as many as 450,000 Sierra Leoneans in camps in Guinea and another 50,000 believed to be in Liberia, the potential resettlement problem is enormous," RI said in a statement. The group also made a number of recommendations aimed at protecting refugees in the countries in the countries sheltering them, including a call for the UNHCR to "increase its inadequate protection staff in refugee camps in Guinea," and for the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UNHCR to monitor assistance levels in refugee camps to ensure that refugees are receiving at least the minimum standard in food rations. RI also made a number of recommendations relating to the peace process within Sierra Leone. The group called on the international community to support WFP and UNICEF initiatives to provide humanitarian assistance, to strengthen programmes to help victims of trauma and sexual abuse, and to make the return of abducted children a high priority. RI also called on UNAMSIL to move quickly to secure the entire country and recommended the establishment of a new armed forces and police force, along with a revamped justice system. RI also called for targeted programmes "to help reintegrate child soldiers into Sierra Leone daily life and society," and demanded that agreements not to recruit children under 18 as soldiers be strictly observed. 

Representatives of Sierra Leone's government and rebel movements met in Bamako, Mali on Wednesday for consultations on how to consolidate the peace in their country. One source told the Sierra Leone Web that the conference, convened at the initiative of Malian President Alpha Oumar Konare (pictured left), the current ECOWAS chairman, was expected to address RUF/RUFP leader Foday Sankoh's February 24 letter to guarantors of the Lomé Peace Accord, alleging violations of the Lomé Peace Accord. President Kabbah reportedly will head the Sierra Leone government delegation, while Trade and Industry Minister Mike Lamin led RUF delegates. Lieutenant-Colonel Johnny Paul Koroma will represent the AFRC and the Commission for the Consolidation of Peace, which he chairs. According to the Pan African News Agency (PANA), the talks were part of consultations related to enhancing peace, security and stability in the sub-region. Also attending are ECOWAS Executive Secretary Lansana Kouyate and the U.N. Secretary-General's Special Representative in Sierra Leone, Oluyemi Adeniji.

RUF/RUFP leader Foday Sankoh denied Wednesday that he had been expelled from South Africa. "Nobody threw me out; it’s lies, fabrication from Sierra Leone. It’s all just trying to cause problem," Sankoh told the BBC. "Nobody threw me out. I was received by my friends, and even the doctor met me the next day. I did my medical check-up, tests, everything. And everything was okay. Nobody, no trouble, no anything...I was not thrown out; that is all lies. It’s rubbish. These people are talking nonsense." Sankoh claimed that the South African government had been aware of his visit because it issued him a visa, and that President Kabbah had given his approval for the trip. "It’s all these monkey tricks, what you call African politics, to destroy the image of a leader of a party," he said. The Sierra Leone government has denied knowledge of Sankoh's South African visit, and a U.N. spokesman said last week Sankoh had been expelled after representations to the South African government by the U.N. Security Council sanctions committee that the former rebel leader's visit was in violation of an international travel ban imposed on former members of the AFRC military junta. A spokesman for South Africa's Department of Foreign Affairs was quoted as saying Sankoh had been issued a visa in the mistaken belief that the U.N. sanctions had been lifted. Sankoh again insisted that his South African trip had been made purely for medical reasons. "My arrest in Nigeria, I had a typhoid infection; my high blood pressure, etc., etc. So I need a proper medical check-up," he said. Sankoh again denounced the U.N. peacekeeping force which, he claimed, was threatening to use force against his followers. "We do not want war again in this country, our people are tired of war," he said. "Nobody shouldn’t pass resolution threaten the combatant that if necessary we’ll use force...We are not ready to fight. Look, these people arrive and they are trying to cause problem. Flying jet bombers, flying helicopter gunships, threatening the people...They should cooperate with us. They are not here to use force. They should listen to us, especially the leadership." Sankoh denied that the RUF had been preventing the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping troops. "This is all fabrication, it’s lies," he said. "Had it not been our cooperation there should have been no disarmament in this country. We disarmed the whole Port Loko District, part of Kambia, Kenema. We are disarming before their arrival. But since they arrived they feel that they are super force to use force. We don’t want war. That language 'force', we don’t want to hear it in this country!"

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), in collaboration with CARE, SHARE, and Future in Our Hands distributed 270 metric tons of assorted food aid commodities to 17,522 beneficiaries in 114 villages in Lower Yoni Chiefdom, Tonkolili District on February 22 and 23, the WFP said in an update current through February 23. The chiefdom was severely affected by last year's fighting and remained inaccessible to humanitarian agencies through most of 1999. "Due to low level harvests and mass looting of already scarce food supplies, Tonkolili District chiefdoms populations are exposed to a high risk of food shortages," the WFP statement said. "Recent assessments showed that more than half of the 34,000 people living in Lower Yoni had little or no access to food, as most farmers were prevented from planting last year." The agency noted that its emergency school feeding programme was expanding rapidly in the provinces. Between February 16 and 23, WFP-Kenema fed a total of 15,324 school children at 27 schools in Kenema District and 5,777 children at 22 schools in five chiefdoms in Moyamba District. Additional schools were currently being assessed by the WFP, the statement said. On 18 February the WFP co-led a mission with  HACU to Makeni to finalise discussions with the RUFP military command on humanitarian access to the Makeni-Magburaka-Matotoka axis. The mission, which included the RUFP humanitarian coordinator, concluded that the security situation in the Makeni area was adequate for "a cautious resumption of humanitarian programmes." The WFP said its logistics unit continues to collaborate with UNAMSIL on the rehabilitation of the Freetown Port shed and road rehabilitation projects. "Last year, WFP delivered over 14,000 metric tons of food aid to Sierra Leone. Every month on average 105,000 people were fed through vulnerable group feeding, school feeding, training, agriculture, nutrition and road rehabilitation programmes," the statement concluded.

Germany formally closed its embassy in Freetown on Wednesday, ending a diplomatic presence in Sierra Leone that dates back to the country's independence in 1961. Germany will now handle consular affairs for Sierra Leone from its embassy in Conakry, Guinea. "We are leaving Sierra Leone purely for financial reasons," said German Charge d'Affaires Konrad Fischer. "We have already closed down 20 of our missions." Sierra Leone will continue to operate its diplomatic mission in Germany.