- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2000

NEW YORK The United States, joined by other U.N. members, yesterday condemned the killing of seven U.N. peacekeepers and the seizing of more than 50 hostages in Sierra Leone by forces led by Foday Sankoh.

U.S. officials began sounding out partners for a rapid reaction force to the bloodied region.

Apparently reacting to the rapid international condemnation, Mr. Sankoh agreed last night to free any hostages held by his movement, the Revolutionary United Front.

The former rebel leader, now a part of the government, signed the accord after meeting with Nigerian national security adviser Alieu Mohammed. The agreement, read on state radio and television, pledged "to release any hostages if held" by his group.

Mr. Sankoh also said he would continue with dialogue about the peace process, allow freedom of movement by U.N. peacekeepers, humanitarian workers and civilians in all the areas formerly under RUF control, and work toward disarmament based on the July peace accord that ended eight years of fighting in the West African coastal state.

"The killing of personnel deployed in the U.N. mission to Sierra Leone, taking of hostages and the attempts to obstruct disarmament … over the past several days are unacceptable, and they must cease immediately," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

He said Washington is "considering ways to improve and support the U.N. presence there and the U.N. forces there, including consideration of some sort of reaction force capability."

He also told reporters that officials were consulting with other Security Council and African nations.

Mr. Boucher said it would be "premature" to go into more detail.

On Tuesday, peacekeepers clashed with RUF guerrillas in the Makeni and Magburaka regions of northern Sierra Leone, according to U.N. spokesman Marie Okabe.

She said at least 49 peacekeepers and U.N. military observers had been detained.

It was one of the bloodiest days for U.N. peacekeeping in Africa, according to U.N. sources.

The U.N. condemnation of the killings and the taking of hostages was the second in two days.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Security Council demanded that RUF abide by the Lome peace agreement.

"They demanded that the RUF release all detainees and cease immediately its hostile acts," said Chinese Ambassador Wang Yinfan, who chairs the council this month.

The council also praised Maj.-Gen. Vijay Kumar Jetley of India, force commander of the United Nations Mission for Sierra Leone (Unamsil), "for his judgment and management of the situation under very dangerous and difficult circumstances."

U.N. officials are negotiating with the RUF "at all levels" for the release of the hostages, said Miss Okabe, who refused to be more specific.

Before Mr. Sankoh signed the accord, he was reported at home in Freetown's suburbs, under the guard of a hundred peacekeepers, according to Miss Okabe.

For the past seven years, Sierra Leone has been engaged in a civil war, during which President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah was toppled by a military group led by Johnny Paul Koroma, allied to Mr. Sankoh. Mr. Kabbah was subsequently restored under the pact that brought Mr. Sankoh and his rebel organization into the government.

The conflict has triggered massive refugee problems, with hundreds of thousands fleeing into neighboring Guinea.

The Security Council approved a peacekeeping mission of up to 11,000 troops for Sierra Leone in mid-1999, replacing a predominantly Nigerian African peacekeeping force operating under West African auspices.

The peacekeepers were apparently trying to disarm the former rebels when they were attacked.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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