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(New York) - Recent atrocities against civilians in two districts of northern and eastern Sierra Leone are the most serious in several months. These atrocities include thekilling of over twenty civilians by pro-government militias.

According to extensive interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch, both the government-allied civil defense force militias (CDF) and rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) have been attacking and killing civilians in the northern Kono and Koinadugu districts of Sierra Leone. Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations to deploy peacekeepers to the region as quickly as possible.

"Civilians are being targeted in deadly battles of retaliation," said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director for Africa at Human Rights Watch. "Neither the RUF nor the CDF make much effort to distinguish between military and civilian targets. The U.N. has to act immediately to stop these atrocities."

Human Rights Watch has interviewed numerous victims and witnesses who described attacks by the CDF militias in June and July against the RUF-controlled towns of Worodu, Yiraia, Sukudu and Mansofinia. In the four attacks documented by Human Rights Watch, at least twenty-four civilians, including nine women and nine children were killed, and some nineteen more civilians, including eleven children, were wounded.

In the most serious recent incident, on June 17, CDF militias, commonly known as the Kamajors or Donzos, killed at least twenty-one civilians in the town of Yiraia. In apparent retaliatory attacks in late June and early July, the RUF launched raids against surrounding villagers whom they accuse of supporting the CDF militias. The RUF killed at least three civilians, wounded several, and abducted sixteen people.

Eleven witnesses and wounded survivors from Yiraia described how in the early morning of June 17, scores of CDF militiamen armed with automatic rifles and machetes attacked the village located some thirty-five miles north of the diamond-rich town of Koidu. Several people, including one elderly man and at least two children, were burned after the attackers set fire to numerous houses in the village. One twelve-year-old survivor with at least five deep gashes around her neck, was left for dead after a militiaman attempted to cut her throat. Another man, shot three times by the attackers, described how his mother, father, sister and son were all killed during the attack. Yet another woman described how her five-year-old daughter's head was shattered by shrapnel after their house was hit by an apparent rocket-propelled grenade. One man, who had recently returned to Sukudu village from a refugee camp in Guinea, was shot by the CDF in another attack on July 11.

A local CDF commander in Kono District, interviewed by Human Rights Watch on July 17, admitted to attacking Yiraia, the home and base of a prominent RUF member, in retaliation for previous attacks by the RUF against their positions. However, CDF leaders in Freetown denied having ordered the attack and said that at the time of the June attack, the CDF militiamen were not acting under orders from the Ministry of Defense.

In apparent retaliatory raids, which began in late June, RUF rebels attacked several towns including Porpon, Hermakono, Bumbanja, Dombadu and Samadu. During these attacks, the rebels killed at least three children, hacked off the ear of one man, wounded several more with machetes, and abducted at least sixteen people, including five children.

According to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, many villages have been burned and looted by both sides, and hundreds of civilians have been displaced as a result of the attacks, which took place from mid-June through the second week in July.

Witnesses claim many of the CDF militiamen currently moving into and launching attacks against RUF territory in Kono and Koinadugu Districts were, until April 2001, based in refugee camps in Guinea or around the Guinean border with Sierra Leone. While in late May 2001 the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) was able to facilitate the disarmament of 171 of these militiamen, hundreds more are currently operating in what has been an RUF stronghold since 1998.

Human Rights Watch is concerned that hundreds of refugees who have been returning to their villages in Kono and Koinadugu Districts from refugee camps in Guinea are at particular risk for retaliatory attacks by the RUF who may accuse them of supporting the CDF militiamen.

Since a ceasefire between the RUF and Government of Sierra Leone was declared in November 2000, UNAMSIL has been able to deploy and/or patrol in all RUF-controlled areas, and since May 2001, some 7,000 combatants from all sides have disarmed. While thousands of combatants in the RUF strongholds of Kambia and Lunsar have disarmed and some degree of governmental authority has been restored, those combatants in the diamond rich area of Kono have been reluctant to disarm, frustrating United Nations and government officials.

Human Rights Watch called on UNAMSIL to hasten its planned deployment into the Kono and Koinadugu Districts so as to enhance protection of the civilian population. Human Rights Watch also called on the UNAMSIL human rights unit to make public its investigation into the attack on Yiraia, and to conduct further investigations into subsequent attacks by both the CDF and RUF against civilians in Kono and Koinadugu districts.

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