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The Sierra Leonean civil war began in March 1991, when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) entered Sierra Leone from Liberia, launching a rebellion to overthrow the one-party rule of the All Peoples Congress (APC). The RUF accused the APC, which had been in power since 1967, of rampant corruption, nepotism, and fiscal mismanagement. Despite the fact that Sierra Leone is extremely resource-rich, with large deposits of diamonds, gold, rutile, and bauxite, it is estimated to be one of the poorest countries in the world.

Under the leadership of Foday Sankoh, a corporal in the Sierra Leone Army who had been imprisoned in 1971 for his alleged involvement in an attempted coup against the APC, the RUF was originally made up of a mixture of middle class students with a populist platform, unemployed and alienated youths, and Liberian fighters from Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).3 The ideological component to the movement, however, was never clearly actualized, and the rebellion quickly developed into a campaign of violence whose principal aim appeared to be simply to gain access to the country's diamond and mineral wealth.

From 1991 until the present, the RUF has fought with great brutality to overthrow the successive governments of both military and elected civilian regimes. Since the outbreak of the war, the country has been marked by instability. In 1992, APC President Joseph Momoh was overthrown in a military coup by Captain Valentine Strasser, whose National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) ruled until it was itself overthrown in 1996, by his deputy, Brigadier Julius Maada Bio.

Later in 1996, however, multi-party elections were held and won by Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, head of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), who pledged to bring about an end to the war. After coming to the negotiating table in Abidjan, the RUF and Kabbah's government signed a peace agreement in November 1996, the Abidjan Accord, which called for a cease-fire, disarmament, demobilization, and the withdrawal of all foreign forces. The cease-fire, however, was broken in January 1997 when serious fighting broke out in southern Moyamba District.

In May 1997, fourteen months after assuming power, President Kabbah was himself overthrown in a coup led by army major Johnny Paul Koroma, heading the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), following his escape from prison, where he had been held following an earlier attempted coup in September 1996. Koroma cited the government's failure to implement the peace agreement as the reason for the coup. Upon taking over, the AFRC suspended the constitution, banned political parties, and announced rule by military decree. It also ushered in a period of political repression characterized by arbitrary arrests and detention.

The AFRC had widespread support within the Sierra Leonean Army (SLA), which had become disillusioned by President Kabbah's decision to cut back support for the military. The SLA accused Kabbah of putting greater confidence for the country's defense in and giving more economic resources to a network of civilian militias, known as the Civil Defense Forces (CDF), the largest and most powerful of which are the Kamajors.4 The Kabbah government had found the Kamajors very effective in fighting the RUF, and, unlike members of the army, they were not accused of collaboration with the RUF for the exploitation of the country's diamond resources.5 Formalizing an alliance between the army and the rebels based on joint opposition to President Kabbah and the People's Party, the AFRC invited the RUF to join them in the new government.

After the coup, which was widely condemned, President Kabbah and his government fled into exile in neighboring Guinea and began to mobilize international condemnation for and a response to the coup makers. In June 1997, Nigerian troops, claiming to act under a defense pact with the Sierra Leonean government, moved to reinforce colleagues from the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) already based at the Freetown airport to defend it from RUF rebels, where they remained based throughout the AFRC regime. In August, following the AFRC's announcement of a four-year program for elections and return to civilian rule, which represented a breakdown in negotiations, ECOWAS states put in place an almost total embargo against Sierra Leone. In October, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution imposing mandatory sanctions on Sierra Leone, including an embargo on arms and oil imports.6

After negotiations in Guinea under the auspices of ECOWAS, the Kabbah government-in-exile and the AFRC/RUF signed an agreement on October 23, 1997 providing for the return to power of President Kabbah by April 1998. However, the AFRC/RUF undermined the implementation of the accord by stockpiling weapons and attacking ECOMOG positions. In February l998, ECOMOG forces working together with Kamajor militia launched an operation which drove the AFRC/RUF forces from Freetown. In March l998, President Kabbah was reinstated as president and over the next several months ECOMOG forces were able to establish control over roughly two-thirds of the country including all regional capitals.

However, once expelled from the capital, the rebels tried to consolidate their own positions in other parts of the country and through a serious of offensives toward the end of l998, managed to gain control of the diamond-rich Kono district and several other strategic towns and areas.7 The Kabbah government, which had negligible forces of its own, relied on ECOMOG to stay in power, yet declined to enter into any negotiations to bring the civil war to an end. By the end of l998, the rebels had gained the upper hand militarily and were in control of over half of the country, including all those areas housing the country's major economic assets. From this position, the RUF launched the January 1999 attack on Freetown.

The war in Sierra Leone has seen considerable involvement of both foreign governments and mercenary forces which have usually provided support in exchange for lucrative contracts and mining concessions. The assistance of Charles Taylor's NPFL and later Liberian government to the RUF is well documented, and has included training, personnel and considerable logistical support. The 1992-1996 military regime (Captain Strasser's National Provisional Ruling Council: NPRC) contracted the South African-based private security firm Executive Outcomes in 1995 to protect the major diamond mining areas. Executive Outcomes remained involved in Sierra Leone until President Kabbah terminated their contract in 1996 as a condition of the 1996 Abidjan Peace Accord. The involvement of Ukrainian arms and ammunition suppliers began under the NPRC and intensified under Brigadier Maada Bio's government. During the January 1999 RUF offensive, armed white men were observed fighting alongside and giving orders to RUF forces. In April 1999, the ECOMOG force commander Felix Mujakperuo publicly accused the presidents of Liberia and Burkina Faso of supplying arms to the RUF by using Ukrainian registered aircraft and crews.8 The Sierra Leonean government has also contracted the services of several foreign soldiers and pilots, most of whom fly, man, and maintain the attack and transport helicopters currently being used by ECOMOG forces.

Since the January occupation of Freetown, there have been the first signs for several years of a possible negotiated resolution to the conflict in Sierra Leone. During March 1999, President Kabbah visited several key countries in the subregion, including Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Togo to discuss the situation in Sierra Leone and possible ways forward. In a radio address to the nation on March 14, President Kabbah expressed his appreciation for the assistance provided by those countries and reaffirmed his commitment to the Adual-track approach developed by ECOWAS, which involves strengthening ECOMOG while preparing to talk to the RUF. At the same time, there was considerable diplomatic activity among a number of parties interested in the resolution of the conflict in Sierra Leone, including the current chairman of ECOWAS, President Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo; the ECOMOG troop-contributing countries, namely Nigeria, Guinea, Ghana, and Mali; the governments of the U.K. and the USA (the USA being represented by the United States presidential special envoy for the promotion of democracy in Africa, the Rev. Jesse Jackson); and the U.N. secretary-general's special representative for Sierra Leone, Francis G. Okelo.

On May 18, 1999, the Sierra Leonean government and the RUF signed a cease-fire agreement, which came into effect on May 24, 1999. Under the agreement, both parties were to maintain their respective positions and refrain from hostile or aggressive acts. Other provisions included the guarantee of safe and unhindered access by humanitarian organizations to all people in need; the immediate release of prisoners of war and noncombatants; and the deployment, subject to the authorization of the Security Council, of United Nations military observers to observe compliance with the cease-fire agreement. Talks between the Sierra Leonean government and the RUF opened in Lomé on May 25, 1999, guided by a facilitation committee chaired by the foreign minister of Togo, with the participation of ECOWAS, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and the U.N. secretary-general's special representative.

On June 2, 1999, the government and the RUF decided to ask UNOMSIL to establish a committee to effect the immediate release of prisoners of war and noncombatants in accordance with the May 18 cease-fire agreement. The committee, which is to be chaired by the UNOMSIL chief military observer, comprises representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), other United Nations agencies, and nongovernmental organizations.

3 Ibrahim Abdullah and Patrck Muana, AThe Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone,@ in Christopher Clapham (ed.), African Guerrillas (Oxford: James Currey, 1998), pp. 173-178.

4 The Kamajors are traditional hunters from the Mende ethnic group in the southern and eastern regions of Sierra Leone who believe in supernatural and ancestral powers. The Mende is Sierra Leone=s largest tribe comprising some 30 percent of the population.

5 Since the NPRC regime, Sierra Leonean Army soldiers and officers had been accused of colluding with the rebels to exploit the country=s diamond reserves. The army was accused of exchanging weapons for diamonds from the RUF, giving them military information, and withdrawing from bases so as to allow rebels to take over diamond rich areas. Such allegations led to a loss of faith in the country=s military and the subsequent creation of civil defense forces, like the Kamajors.

6 See Human Rights Watch/Africa, ATransition or Travesty? Nigeria=s Endless Process of Return to Civilian Rule,@ A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 9 no.6 (A), October 1997 for a discussion of the Nigerian intervention in Sierra Leone.

7 See Human Rights Watch, ASowing Terror: Atrocities against Civilians in Sierra Leone,@ A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol.10, no.3 (A).

8 ECOMOG Press Statement, issued Freetown, April 8, 1999.

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