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Crisis in Sierra Leone

May 4, 2000 at 12:00 AM EST
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SPENCER MICHELS: United Nations peacekeeping forces are again caught in the crossfire of civil war, this time in the small west African nation of Sierra Leone. The U.N. said today that four peacekeepers, reportedly all Kenyans, are missing and presumed dead, and another eight are wounded, in fighting with forces of the Revolutionary United Front, the RUF, the principal rebel group in Sierra Leone.

The country, with 4.5 million people, is a former British protectorate bordering Liberia and Guinea that gained independence in 1961. Its people are mostly subsistence farmers. This week, 69 U.N. peacekeepers trying to implement a peace agreement signed last July were captured by the rebels. A 23-member Indian detachment is reported surrounded by rebels in the east, and the U.N. command has lost contact with other units. The peace accord was designed to end a bloody eight-year-long civil war that left tens of thousands dead and thousands of others maimed, bearing the brutal signature of the rebels: amputated hands and arms. The killings and abductions were swiftly denounced by United Nations officials.

MARIE OKABE, United Nations Spokesperson: The secretary-general expresses his outrage at the continuing deliberate attacks on U.N. personnel in Sierra Leone by armed groups and individuals belonging to the Revolutionary United Front.

SPENCER MICHELS: The attack this week was the worst on U.N. peacekeepers since 10 Belgians were slaughtered trying to end the genocidal civil war in the central African nation of Rwanda in 1994. The previous year, 24 Pakistani peacekeepers were killed in Somalia. Some 8,500 troops, mostly from Africa and India, were deployed in April by the United Nations to begin disarming the rebels. The final force is to number 11,000, the largest peacekeeping force in the world.

But getting the troops has been difficult. No American forces are to be involved on the ground. The U.N.-brokered peace deal, known as the Lome Accord, sparked controversy by giving some government power to the rebels. The agreement also granted blanket amnesty to all rebels, though war crimes prosecutions could take place. Rebel leader Fadoy Sankoh, who became a government minister by virtue of the peace agreement, and controls the country’s major revenue stream, its rich diamond mines, agreed late Wednesday to free any hostages held by his forces. Peacekeepers had earlier surrounded his compound the capital of Freetown. Sankoh, who has made similar promises in the past, received a stern warning today from the U.S. State Department.

RICHARD BOUCHER, State Department Spokesman: The international community in the Lome Agreement provided Mr. Sankoh with a second chance for legitimacy and a chance to participate with the international community in peace in Sierra Leone. But his actions of violence and noncompliance risk losing that second chance.

SPENCER MICHELS: Meanwhile, the United Nations has made an emergency request for 3,000 additional troops, and the Clinton administration is considering ways to give the U.N. force more punch.

MARGARET WARNER: For more, we are joined by Ibrahim Kamara, Sierra Leone’s ambassador to the United Nations; and Colum Lynch, the U.N. correspondent for the Washington Post. Welcome, gentlemen. First of all, Mr. Lynch, are there any updates on either the number dead or missing or the status of these captives?

COLUM LYNCH, Washington Post: Yes. The latest update is the situation is very fluid, and I think they’re getting a lot of very confused and conflicted information. But the last reports of the number of dead is actually less than the U.N. thought yesterday. So there were four Kenyan peacekeepers who were missing and presumed dead.

MARGARET WARNER: And actually before you sat down I think we did report that. But for instance, do they know exactly where these missing and captive peacekeepers are?

COLUM LYNCH: They know the general parts of the country. But they, I mean, even in the case with the four dead, they haven’t recovered the bodies. There is a series of cities and towns around Sierra Leone, there’s one town, Makeni, and another Kailahun and a third, Magburaka and that’s where the main exchanges have taken place over the last couple days.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ambassador, tell us more about Foday Sankoh. We did identify him a little bit in our setup piece. Are you convinced he’s behind this, and if so, why?

IBRAHIM KAMARA, U.N. Ambassador, Sierra Leone: Well, Foday Sankoh, definitely there is no denying that he’s behind this. And everybody knows this. The United Nations knows this that he is behind all this new outbreak. His people are the ones. What he does is he goes out and tells the international community, or when he’s faced with the cameras, the media, he tells his fighters to disarm, and when the observers leave, he tells them something completely different. He’s not a man of peace. The people know it, the U.N. knows this, the international community knows that this man is not a man of peace.

MARGARET WARNER: But what do you think is his motive for doing this?

IBRAHIM KAMARA: Well, his motive is to rule Sierra Leone by whatever means.

MARGARET WARNER: To rule Sierra Leone.

IBRAHIM KAMARA: By whatever means, yes. But that will be against the wish of the people.

MARGARET WARNER: But explain the situation. Here he is a former rebel leader, he’s now in your government, he has the rank of vice president, he’s head of this ministry of mines. Yet he still has control over rebel forces.

IBRAHIM KAMARA: Well, exactly that is the most baffling aspect of all this. I mean, the man, well not force really but for peace the president had to bow down to pressure to negotiate a peace agreement with a murderer and a man whom the international community is considered to be the worst killer now alive on this planet. We bow down to some pressures and we negotiated with them in good faith. We signed the general accord, which he himself signed. And even though under some amount of discomfort for us, because some of the closest in the Lome agreement, we did not agree to.

But we decided because we wanted this for the country and for our people. We didn’t want to do anything that the international community will object to what we agreed. And that is it. The ball now is in the court of the international community — there are more to this agreement — to the Lome Agreement — and we are only waiting to see, because not a small man like Foday Sankoh cannot hold the world to ransom.

MARGARET WARNER: Colum Lynch, before we go on to what has to be done, what would you add to what U.N. officials believe is the motive behind this? For instance, there have been published reports that this rebel leader’s forces control the diamond producing areas in the East, that he’s got a lucrative smuggling business. Do U.N. officials give credence to that, that he doesn’t want the U.N. peacekeepers interfering with that?

COLUM LYNCH: Yes. There have been exchanges over access to the diamond areas, and I think he is reluctant to allow U.N. access to that area. But there’s another thing happening which is that you’re in a transitional mode right now. A Nigerian-led force was in the country for several years acting in a similar role that the U.N. is playing now. So during this transition it looks like Sankoh is trying to test the will of the United Nations.

IBRAHIM KAMARA: Absolutely.

COLUM LYNCH: It’s not clear whether he wants to cause trouble for them or just show them he’s the guy who runs things or whether he wants to draw them out. But in terms of sort of the motive for the latest round of fighting, there was one instance that bears looking at, there was a case on Monday in which a number of Foday Sankoh’s forces are obliged under the peace agreement to turn over their weapon to the U.N., and it turns out that there were about 10 of his forces who actually decided to do that, and they received a bit of money in exchange.

However, they had not gotten the authority to do that from their own authorities, from what seems to be a continuing military force that has considerable control over their actions. And so they went to this disarmament camp and they basically demanded the release of these ten soldiers who they consider deserters. And they went in there and brought, destroyed the camp, started kidnapping U.N. personnel, and later in the day began in some sort of very bloody exchanges with Kenyan peacekeepers there.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Colum Lynch, what are both the rules of engagement for these peacekeepers, and to what degree are they armed? Are they this vulnerable or are they able to defend themselves?

COLUM LYNCH: The rules of engagement, as in many of these peacekeeping operations, is rather vague. They do have quite robust rules of engagement. But they can use all force necessary to respond to an attack by soldiers or even to force their way throughout the country. Under the agreement the U.N. should be able to go anywhere it wants and it can use force to make sure that it can do that. However, there is a feeling that many of the troops that are in Sierra Leone do not have the kind of equipment that you know, one would sort of expect from sort of a modern western military. So it’s a bit rough going when they engage these guys, and quite often they’re outnumbered by the rough troops.

MARGARET WARNER: So Mr. Ambassador, what is it you want to see the U.N. do now?

IBRAHIM KAMARA: Well, the U.N. is in Sierra Leone with a mandate; we only want them to go by the mandate that they have. And to be able to implement that mandate, as Colum just said now, they need to have the equipment, the proper equipment to carry out this mandate. We told them from the beginning, the issue that Sankoh will test their resolve, Sankoh has not done it. We told them if he leaves, this man will try to test you. And we even told him that this man is dangerous when the Guineans on their way to join UNAMSIL were disarmed.

MARGARET WARNER: But let me ask you one other thing — concerning this, the U.N., for instance, has asked for more reinforcements, as we just reported. But do you think that given what’s happened they’re even going to get reinforcements from member nations?

IBRAHIM KAMARA: If they are properly equipped, as Colum said just now, they have the proper equipment, let me tell you something. For what we knew, those who have armed some of these boys, these peacekeepers are small some of them ten in number, and these people have a mandate to carry out. All we’re asking that the mandate which they have, when people perform peacekeeping duties, they go with a specific mandate, not only to protect themselves, but to protect civilians, and U.N. personnel, and people — I mean — civilians in imminent danger and nongovernmental organizations and to open up the country. This is their mandate. This is what we expect them to carry.

MARGARET WARNER: What are you hearing, Colum Lynch, about what the U.N. is prepared to do here? Is it going to take robust military force, is there the will to do that?

COLUM LYNCH: I think yesterday morning I think there was a sense of panic that something had to be done dramatically immediately. There were requests by the secretary- general to European capitals to London and Paris in particular, to go to provide more logistic support for rapid reaction force — but also to consider actually providing European troops to participate in this operation.

The British government, Foreign Minister Cook today ruled that out, he ruled out the deployment of British troops. However, he said he would provide some material support. The United States is currently mulling whether to send airlift capacity communications and that sort of thing for a rapid reaction force on the ground that would be run primarily by Indians and Gerkas, but that would be designed to deter these future attacks. As I said, there was more enthusiasm for some of these tougher more robust responses yesterday than I think there is today.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m sorry, we’ll have to leave it there. But thank you both very much.

COLUM LYNCH: Thank you very much.

IBRAHIM KAMARA: Thank you very much.