- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2000

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone Sierra Leone's rebels freed 139 of more than 500 U.N. personnel held captive into Liberian custody, Liberia's President Charles Taylor said yesterday, after U.N. officials secured the release of 18 others.

Mr. Taylor, speaking in Liberia's capital, said 15 of the freed captives had been flown by helicopter to Monrovia, while the remaining 124 were waiting to be evacuated from the Liberian border town of Foya.

A U.N. spokesman in Sierra Leone's capital said he was unaware of the releases and officials at U.N. headquarters in New York said they were unable to immediately confirm the report.

West African and U.N. officials stood by silently during the meeting in the living room of Mr. Taylor's presidential mansion.

Mr. Taylor, who had been asked by regional leaders to mediate with the rebels, lashed out at the United States, whom he said had refused to offer air transport to evacuate the captives.

Instead, he said the captives had been forced to trek for nearly three days through heavily forested eastern Sierra Leone to Liberia.

Mr. Taylor also warned that continued attacks by Sierra Leone's pro-government forces against the rebels "threaten the lives" of the remaining U.N. personnel held captive.

"The attacks on the Revolutionary United Front could not only hamper the mediation work by the Liberian team but also end the lives of the hostages," Mr. Taylor said.

Earlier yesterday in Freetown, the rebels handed over 18 U.N. peacekeepers, but the guerrillas also reportedly attacked a key highway junction east of the capital as clashes continued in the nation's reignited civil war.

David Wimhurst, a U.N. spokesman in Freetown said the captives 11 Indian troops and seven unarmed military observers of various nationalities were released to U.N. soldiers at Kailahun.

The released peacekeepers were among more than 500 members of a U.N. force who were disarmed and taken into custody by the Revolutionary United Front rebels when they ended a 10-month peace and restarted Sierra Leone's civil war earlier this month.

In their eight-year campaign against various governments, the RUF rebels have killed tens of thousands and intentionally mutilated and dismembered many more men, women and children. Last July, they signed a peace deal. The U.N. peacekeepers were sent to Sierra Leone to oversee that peace accord.

But the rebels damaged the accord by taking peacekeepers hostage. Then, a week ago, they opened fire on unarmed demonstrators outside rebel chief Foday Sankoh's home. Thirteen civilians and six soldiers were killed.

Yesterday, rebels and pro-government forces battled for control of Masiaka town, a key road junction some 30 miles east of the capital, U.N. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. By noon, government troops retook the town for the second time in 24 hours, the officials said.

In another development, Britain, Sierra Leone's former colonial ruler, reaffirmed that its troops would not get sucked into the civil war. Britain has contributed some 700 paratroopers, but only to help U.N. peacekeepers, pro-government militiamen and ex-army soldiers protect the airport and organize a defense of the capital.

The British mission was originally intended to evacuate its expatriates from Freetown. That goal has been largely accomplished.

Gen. Charles Guthrie, Britain's chief of Defense Staff, flew into Freetown yesterday from Senegal to evaluate the British mission, saying its objective was unchanged.

"Our job here is to evacuate people, to secure this airfield and though we are not part of the United Nations [peacekeeping force], to give help to U.N. forces," Gen. Guthrie said. He declined to answer questions about whether the British were preparing for a possible offensive role.

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