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Just days before scheduled peace talks, rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) have committed scores of atrocities against the civilian population of Sierra Leone, Human Rights Watch confirmed today.

In the regions of Port Loko and Masiaka, approximately 30 miles northeast of Freetown, Human Rights Watch has taken testimonies of survivors who describe decapitations, amputation of hands, mouths and ears, and scores of abductions of children and women by the RUF rebels.

"The world is captivated by the suffering in Kosovo," said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director for Africa at Human Rights Watch. "Meanwhile, what's happening in Sierra Leone is unspeakable. Where is the global outrage?"

While these atrocities are the most serious since the January 1999 rebel offensive against Freetown, it is consistent with a long standing pattern of human rights abuses committed against the civilian population by rebel groups, and also by Sierra Leonean government forces and their surrogates.

"Human rights has to be at the top of the agenda when the parties begin their peace talks on Monday," said Takirambudde. He urged the international community to put pressure on the rebel and government negotiators to stop the crimes against humanity. Peace talks are scheduled to begin Monday, May 18, in Lomé, Togo.

Human Rights Watch has taken testimony from residents of the villages of Madigba, Masimra, Ropart, Mangarma, Msumana and Magbany. One man interviewed in Freetown on May 13 described an attack on the village of Madigba in which 12 civilians, including seven of his own young children, were hacked to death in the early morning of May 11. He told Human Rights Watch:

They entered our village at around 3:00 am and set upon us, accusing us of hiding ECOMOG soldiers[West African peacekeepers] and Kamajors [civilian defense forces] They went house to house, stealing everything, and started attacking us with axes and machetes. I grabbed two of my children and ran into the bush to hide and when I came back a few hours later I saw that eleven people had been killed. Only one of my nieces was still alive but her head was split open and she died this morning in the hospital.

From his hospital bed on May 14 one of these villagers, I.K. told Human Rights Watch:

A group of over l00 rebels caught me and my friend M. in the bush as we were trying to flee. They brought us to the village of Mangarma, where I saw over 40 civilians from several surrounding villages being held at gunpoint by the rebels. They were mostly women and children. I think the men were able to get away. They forced the women and children to go into two houses. Over the next two hours I saw the rebels killing at least 20 people. At around 2:00 pm they brought five women from inside a house who they forced to take off their clothes and lay on the ground. Then three rebels cut their throats and hacked them to death with machetes. They placed one of the women's heads on a stick and put it at the entrance to the village. The rebels then called me and told me to say good-bye to my people. I begged them not to kill me so they cut off both of my hands and told me to run and tell ECOMOG they were soon coming to Port. Loko. I ran but from where I was hiding in the bush I could see at least four rebels taking children out of the houses and killing them with knives and machetes. They killed eight children, I counted them.

A 27-year-old teacher interviewed in a Freetown hospital said rebels cut off both of his arms with an axe. He described seeing five people, including two children, executed by the rebels. In an interview on May 12, he told Human Rights Watch:

When we heard the rebels were coming we fled into the bush but were soon set upon by a group of seven of them. The rebels grabbed the children from their mothers' arms -- one was just an infant and the other was about three -- and bayoneted them to death before killing the two women with machetes. Then they killed the old man. The commander who gave the order said they had no use within their ranks. The rebels then walked me to the Masiaka-Waterloo highway where they cut off both my hands. First they cut off my right hand with a rusty axe I begged them to leave my other hand because I'm left handed, but they cut it anyway. They then told me to go to ECOMOG and tell them the rebels were around.

Several other survivors describe atrocities being committed in at least four villages near Port Loko, which were all attacked in the morning and afternoon hours of May 7. Human Rights Watch took testimonies from four civilians, including a 15-year-old girl, who was one of three people in one family whose two hands were all amputated by an axe in a rebel attack on the town of Mangarma.

Seven survivors interviewed by Human Rights Watch spoke of having witnessed abductions of family members by the RUF forces. According to testimonies taken, the majority of those abducted were young women and children. One woman from Masampa village near Masiaka gave the names of five children between nine and 15 who were abducted by the rebels during an assault on their village in late April.

All the witnesses interviewed described widespread looting of property and burning of houses by the rebel forces during the attacks on villages. Those whose villages had been occupied by the rebels also described a pattern of forced labor and intimidation.

Human Rights Watch noted that the rebel actions constituted crimes against humanity, among the most serious international crimes.

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