Sierra Leone: Rebel chief to remain in custody for now

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone - Sierra Leone's government said Saturday it would not bow to pressure and release rebel chief Foday Sankoh, even though his fighters are holding 334 U.N. peacekeepers hostage.

The rebels have reportedly demanded freedom for Sankoh, who was seized Wednesday and is in government custody at an undisclosed location.

The guerrillas have not linked his release to the freedom of the U.N. captives. However, they have stopped freeing peacekeepers at their jungle bases. In recent days, they had allowed some groups to walk to neighboring Liberia.

Asked if Sankoh might be released in a bid to end Sierra Leone's renewed conflict, Information Minister Julius Spencer said: ''it's out of the question. It's not possible.''

Sankoh, widely reviled for his role in the country's brutal civil war, was captured as he walked toward his Freetown home. He had fled his home May 8 after his fighters fired on a crowd of demonstrators, killing 19.

The government has yet to say what will happen to the rebel chief, whose Revolutionary United Front rebels reopened their fight against the government in recent weeks, undermining a fragile peace accord signed last July.

Under the peace accord, the rebels were given an amnesty and Sankoh received a spot in the government. However, the amnesty does not cover acts committed since the agreement was signed in July.

Asked if Sankoh would face trial, as many Sierra Leoneans are demanding, Spencer said: ''The incidents are being investigated to determine whether charges should be filed.''

In another development, seven peacekeepers from Kenya were missing after being encircled by rebels, according to a Kenyan newspaper report.

A group of 10 Kenyans ''attempted to break out of the encirclement, (and their) armored vehicle slipped into a raging river,'' Kenyan Gen. Daudi Tonje was quoted as saying in the East Africa Standard newspaper. Three managed to swim to safety, he said.

U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst in Sierra Leone said only that there were ''unconfirmed reports'' that a number of peacekeepers had died. The U.N. had previously announced the deaths of two of its soldiers out of a contingent that now numbers 10,400 - the largest U.N. peacekeeping deployment in the world.

The recent clashes between pro-government forces and the rebels have forced thousands of villagers to flee their homes and could disrupt food supplies, the U.N.'s World Food Program said.

Meanwhile, U.S. envoy Jesse Jackson denounced the ''terror tactics'' of the rebels and called on them to immediately release the U.N. peacekeepers.

''The RUF must disarm voluntarily, and immediately, or be made to disarm involuntarily,'' Jackson said Saturday at a press conference in neighboring Liberia.

Jackson, acting as President Clinton's special envoy, is touring West Africa in a bid to calm tensions in Sierra Leone and win the freedom of the peacekeepers. The rebels seized about 500 peacekeepers earlier this month, and are still holding the majority of them at their jungle bases in eastern Sierra Leone.

Jackson said Saturday that he had not yet decided whether he would go to Sierra Leone. He planned to travel to Mali and Guinea over the weekend.

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