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Vol 41 No 10

Published 12th May 2000

Sierra Leone

The battle for Freetown

A rebel takeover of the capital would be an irreversible defeat for UN peacekeeping and British policy

The next few weeks will be critical for Sierra Leoneans and, more widely, for peacekeeping missions across Africa. Much will depend on the defence of Freetown mounted by United Nations' forces, backed by some 3,000 Sierra Leonean government troops and over 800 British troops. If the military band-aid stuck on by the UN and the British government holds and the Revolutionary United Front rebels are driven back, that will clear the way for a drastic restructuring of the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (Unamsil). UN officials, Western and African diplomats will have to accept that the peace accord brokered in Lomé last July has collapsed irretrievably and start to write a new script. Since the current crisis began with the kidnapping of 90 UN peacekeepers on 3 May, it has seemed inevitable that the RUF would attack Freetown. For the RUF, controlling the capital city, devastated by previous assaults, is the political counterpart of its economic and military control of the diamond fields. Given their rout of UN forces up country, RUF commanders may reckon that Freetown remains an easy target. They may be repeating the tactics of their January 1999 assault, in which RUF fighters were secreted in Freetown's suburbs some days prior to the main assault on government buildings.

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