Mutilated corpses in Sierra Leone may be U.N. peacekeepers

ROGBERI JUNCTION, Sierra Leone - Mutilated corpses discovered in the bush Monday appeared to be U.N. peacekeepers allegedly killed by Sierra Leone's rebels, a discovery that could hinder efforts to free hundreds of captured U.N. troops.

And in yet another blow to the embattled peacekeepers, two members of Nigeria's contingent were killed in a nighttime firefight in the capital Freetown.

As United Nations forces struggled to establish control in the West African nation, there was one piece of good news: Twenty-nine U.N. captives were released Monday by Sierra Leone's guerrillas.

The rebels are still holding 250 or more of the 500 peacekeepers they seized three weeks ago.

In a gruesome scene northeast of the capital, an Associated Press Television News cameraman saw what appeared to be at least three corpses of U.N. peacekeepers in the bush about half a mile from the town of Rogberi Junction.

The severely hacked bodies were wearing Zambian military uniforms and U.N. insignias.

However, U.N. officials did not confirm they were peacekeepers, noting that rebels had previously stripped the weapons and uniforms of other U.N. captives and used them in subsequent battles.

''We need to investigate this thoroughly,'' said U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst. ''The fact that they were wearing Zambian uniforms doesn't necessarily mean that they were Zambian.''

A blue U.N. military helmet sat near the corpses, which were lying in the grass. The helmet appeared to have been pierced by a bullet.

Zambian passports and military identification cards - many pierced with bullet holes - were found in the molding pile of corpses and uniforms. A former U.N. position had been burned to the ground in Rogberi Junction, about 50 miles northeast of Freetown.

Sierra Leonean soldiers, who battled the rebels Sunday to capture this key crossroads town, said other bodies were scattered in the area, at least some wearing uniforms with the U.N. insignia.

The soldiers said nine to 11 U.N. peacekeepers were killed in fighting earlier this month with rebels of the Revolutionary United Front. At least one of the victims had his hands tied behind his back, they said.

In New York, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said there was a gunbattle in the area May 6, but it was not clear whether the bodies found Monday were U.N. peacekeepers.

In Freetown, two Nigerian peacekeepers were gunned down in an overnight battle at a U.N. post, U.N. officials said.

However, the attackers did not belong to the RUF - they came from a group of soldiers loyal to former junta leader Johnny Paul Koroma, officials said.

Koroma's men have been loosely aligned with the Sierra Leone government army. But Koroma's fighters were apparently upset because one of their colleagues had been arrested, officials said.

Meanwhile, Sierra Leone's Information Minister Julius Spencer said there was ''no connection'' between rebel leader Foday Sankoh's fate and the release of more U.N. hostages. The government has not yet decided whether to prosecute Sankoh, who was captured last week.

A group of 54 U.N. peacekeepers was freed Sunday and another 29 were released Monday along Sierra Leone's border with Liberia.

One freed captive, 57-year-old Naval Cmdr. Knut Gjellestad, a Norwegian military observer, told of intoxicated rebels threatening hostages.

On two occasions, he thought he would be killed when rebel fighters pointed a gun at his head, he told the Norwegian news agency NTB.

''Psychologically I have managed well,'' he said. ''It swung between laughter and tears.''

''When we were moved, we were bound. With me, they tightened up extra hard,'' he said.

Many in the group released Sunday looked thin and weak as they walked off the plane, and U.N. officials have expressed concerns for the health of the remaining captives.

Three injured Kenyans were taken away in an ambulance. Several of the freed hostages were suffering from malaria, officials said.

The U.N. contingent in Sierra Leone now numbers 10,400, the largest U.N. peacekeeping deployment in the world, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan recommended Monday that the number of troops be increased to 16,500.

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who also serves as President Clinton's special envoy to Africa, returned to the United States and said Monday that Sierra Leone's rebels should disarm voluntarily or be disarmed.

Continued fighting in Sierra Leone could ''create a domino effect of instability in the region'' said Jackson, who visited Nigeria, Mali and Liberia over the weekend.


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