Human Rights Watch today expressed concern that the Sierra Leone government has caused civilian casualties and massive civilian displacement in helicopter gunship attacks against suspected rebel positions. The attacks took place during the months of May and June in the towns of Makeni, Magburaka and Kambia and have resulted at least 27 civilian deaths and some 50 wounded civilians, as well as the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians. Human Rights Watch called on the Sierra Leone government and its British military advisors to ensure that government forces respect international humanitarian law and take the necessary precautions to protect civilians.  
 
"It is unacceptable for the Sierra Leone government to start dropping bombs on a crowded market place in the hope of hitting a small number of rebels," said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "The pro-government forces in Sierra Leone need to do more to minimize the impact of their military actions on the civilian population."  
 
Displaced civilians from Makeni, located some 120 miles north-east of Freetown, and Magburaka, located fifteen miles southeast of Makeni, have described several air attacks on public places, including crowded markets. The actions of the helicopter caused a massive civilian exodus which emptied entire towns and villages. Aid workers and credible sources said the number of Sierra Leoneans seeking refuge in nearby Guinea doubled from 100 to 200 per day in mid-June following attacks around the Northern town of Kambia. Witnesses maintain the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) sustained few casualties in the raids.  
 
In Makeni, the Government MI-24 gunship on May 31 dropped leaflets warning the RUF of a future air attack but attacked the center of town just minutes later. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that between seven and nine people were killed when a government helicopter attacked the central lorry park with bombs and gunfire. The victims included a pregnant woman; a twenty-nine-year-old pharmacist called Umar Bongo; Alhadji Jallo, aged thirty-three; and Ibrahim Conte. Some had rushed to collect the leaflets which had just been dropped.  
 
It is possible that there may have been a legitimate military target near the market place shortly before the attack. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they saw senior RUF commanders as well as RUF vehicles, including one with a mounted anti-aircraft gun, in the vicinity of the market place just before the bombing.  
 
Protocol II additional to the Geneva Conventions prohibits attacks targeting civilians and requires that armed forces take precautions to limit the dangers of attacks to civilian populations. ‘Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilians population' are prohibited. Military actions should be guided by the principle of proportionality; the attacker should refrain from launching an attack if the expected civilian casualties would outweigh the importance of the military target.  
 
Forty-year-old Zainab from Makeni described seeing the bodies of four men and three women after the helicopter gunship attacked the crowded lorry park in the center of town on May 31. "The bodies were torn apart, I could see that one of the women was pregnant. These bombs never hit [RUF] soldiers because they know by now how to hide from it. It only kills civilians. The rebels run to surrounding villages and hide, they mix with civilians."  
 
Khalil, a thirty-one-year old vendor, described the May 31 attack in Makeni and related how rebels later forced him to bury the civilian dead, "Close to where I was staying a house was hit. I went out and just near the house were the bodies of two young boys between the ages of twelve to sixteen. I then went out to the lorry park and saw the dead body of a man who used to sell tires at the Makeni market. Then about fifteen rebels approached me and a few others and ordered us to bury the dead. When we arrived at the graveyard after carrying two bodies, I saw four others bodies of civilians lying there waiting to be buried."  
 
Seventeen-year-old Sahr was selling mangos when the gunship attacked Magburaka on June 7: "The bombs and the leaflets came at just about the same time. I fled into a neighboring house to seek shelter. The bombardment seemed to last for about thirty minutes and when it was finished I went back to the market to take a look. I saw nine dead bodies; men and women and one child, a baby. I saw about eight injured people as well."  
 
As the military effort in Sierra Leone is being advised, trained, and in some cases directed by British military forces on the ground, Human Rights Watch urged Britain to take a proactive role in ensuring that international humanitarian law is respected by the pro-government forces. In particular, parties of the conflict must distinguish at all times between civilians and combatants and take the necessary precautions to protect civilians from attack.  
 
Human Rights Watch also strongly condemned the continuing practice of both pro-government and rebel forces to extort "taxes" from fleeing civilian populations. All witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that they had been forces to pay a "tax" to pro-government Civil Defense Forces (CDF) before entering the town of Mile 91, and civilians who fled through RUF-held territory described how they were forced to hand over personal belongings and money at RUF-controlled territory.  
 
"It is unconscionable that pro-government and rebel forces are stealing the last possessions from frightened, fleeing people," said Takirambudde. "The government of Sierra Leone needs to act immediately to stop theft and extortion by forces loyal to the government, particularly the Civil Defense Forces."