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(New York) - Rebel forces in Sierra Leone systematically murdered, mutilated, and raped civilians during their January offensive, Human Rights Watch charged today. In a report released on the eve of an important United Nations visit to Freetown, Human Rights Watch documented how entire families were gunned down in the street, children and adults had their limbs hacked off with machetes, and girls and young women were taken to rebel bases and sexually abused. Government forces and the Nigerian-led peacekeeping force supporting them also carried out serious abuses, although to a lesser extent, including over 180 summary executions of Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels and suspected collaborators.

"The January 1999 offensive against Freetown marked the most intensive and concentrated period of human rights violations in Sierra Leone's eight-year civil war," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch.

"This is not a war in which civilians are accidental victims," said Takirambudde. "This is a war in which civilians are the targets. The crimes against humanity described in this report are unspeakably brutal, and the world must not simply avert its attention from the crisis. The U.N. and its members states must show that the rights of all human beings are of equal value."

Takirambudde urged Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights who visits Freetown, Sierra Leone on June 24, to mobilize international support for the investigation and punishment of Sierra Leone's war criminals.

While the current peace negotiations taking place in Lomé, Togo, offer some hope that the civil war may come to a close, Human Rights Watch cautioned against granting amnesty to human rights violators as a condition for peace. "Conflict in Sierra Leone has been so tenacious precisely because of this cycle of impunity," said Takirambudde. "Those responsible for torture and mutilations should not walk away scot-free."

The sixty-page report, "Getting Away with Murder, Mutilation, and Rape: New Testimony from Sierra Leone," documents how, as rebels took control of the city in January 1999, they made little distinction between civilian and military targets. Testimonies from victims and survivors describe numerous massacres of civilians gathered in houses, churches and mosques. One massacre in a mosque on January 22 resulted in the deaths of sixty-six people. A woman describes how she escaped from a burning house after rebels set her mother and daughter on fire. A child recounts how, from her hiding place, she watched rebels execute seventeen of her family and friends.

The report also includes testimonies from girls and women who describe how they were systematically rounded up by the rebels, brought to rebel command centers and then subjected to individual and gang-rape. Young girls under seventeen, and particularly those deemed to be virgins, were specifically targeted, and hundreds of them were later abducted by the rebels.

The rebels carried out large numbers of mutilations, in particular amputation of hands, arms, legs, and other parts of the body. In Freetown, several hundred people, mostly men but also women and children, were killed and maimed in this way. Twenty six civilians were the victims of double arm amputations. One eleven-year-old girl describes how she and two of her friends were taken away by a group of rebels, who then hacked off both of their hands.

It is difficult to ascertain what level of the RUF command ordered these human rights abuses, but the report describes how many of the attacks seemed to be well organized, and some were clearly planned and premeditated. Victims and witnesses describe widespread participation in the abuses, with very few accounts of individual combatants or commanders trying to halt them. The report documents special operations to round up civilians for mutilation, rape, and execution, as well as the existence of units specializing in particular forms of atrocities.

The report also documents how the RUF made extensive use of human shields both to enter Freetown and as defense against the air power of the Nigerian-led Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) peacekeeping force. As the rebels withdrew, they set neighborhoods on fire, leaving up to 80 percent of some areas in ashes and an estimated 51,000 civilians homeless.

While the RUF committed the vast majority of atrocities and other violations of international humanitarian law during the battle for Freetown, those defending the capital also committed serious abuses, both during and after the rebel incursion. The report documents how members of ECOMOG, and to a lesser extent members of the Civil Defense Forces(CDF) and Sierra Leonean Police, routinely executed RUF prisoners and their suspected collaborators or sympathizers. While the victims were mostly young men, witnesses confirm the execution of some women, and children as young as eight. Officers to the level of captain were present and sometimes participated in these executions.

Human Rights Watch calls on all parties to the war, but especially the RUF rebels, who have been guilty of the worst abuses, to respect international humanitarian law as laid down in the Geneva Conventions and its protocols. In particular, parties to the conflict must distinguish at all times between civilians and combatants and desist from targeting civilians for attack.

"Influencing the actions of the rebel forces in Sierra Leone is difficult," said Takirambudde. "But international pressure must be maintained to cease indiscriminate killings, rape, mutilation, and the abduction of civilians, especially children."

While the international response to the Kosovo crisis has demonstrated how quickly and forcefully it can react to a human rights catastrophe, Human Rights Watch noted with concern the stark contrast with the lack of international response that these appalling atrocities committed in Sierra Leone have received. Eight years of war there have left over 50,000 dead and one million civilians displaced.

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