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U.N. hostages issue draws global ire

By Sridhar Krishnaswami

WASHINGTON, MAY 5. The United Nations Security Council has condemned the violence and hostage-taking involving its peacekeepers in Sierra Leone.

The Clinton administration has also warned the rebel leader, Mr. Foday Sankoh, that his amnesty may have run out as he has violated the peace deal signed in Togo last year.

After expressing concern and unease in the last few days over what was taking place in Sierra Leone, the United Nations has sharpened its tone on the goings-on in Sierra Leone, bluntly telling the rebel leader of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) that he should stop harming the United Nations peacekeepers.

The U.N. now says that the estimated dead Kenyan soldiers in the mission is four and not seven as originally feared, and that 92 peacekeepers - including 23 from India - have now been surrounded and taken hostage.

On Thursday, the Security Council formally condemned the violence and the Secretary-General, back from a trip to Africa, said that the leaders there have told Mr. Sankoh to stop his fighters from harming the United Nations troops.

``They (the African leaders) have tried to impress on him (Mr.Sankoh) the seriousness of the situation,'' Mr. Kofi Annan said. The U.N. chief further noted that he had spoken to the leaders of Nigeria, Mali, Liberia, Bukirna Faso, Togo, and Libya.

Several of these leaders have already sent their special envoys to Freetown.

The crisis in Sierra Leone started after the United Nations refused to hand over to the RUF some of their former colleagues who had gone to a disarmament centre to turn in their weapons. The rebels were keen on knowing the whereabouts of their former comrades but this information was not shared.

The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone, known as UNAMSIL, will reach its full strength of 11,000 peacekeepers by this July, when it is set to become the largest operating in the world. Even before the present crisis broke out, an additional contingent of some 2,000 troops were expected from India, Bangladesh and Jordan.

The mandate to the peacekeepers is to ensure that the peace deal signed is observed, and to oversee the demobilisation and disarmament of an estimated 45,000 rebel fighters. The rebels are said to be resisting because the areas they operate are rich in diamonds, the clandestine operation that funds their activities.

No request for troops

In Washington, the Clinton administration is making it known that it is indeed watching the developing situation very carefully, but made it known that at this time there was no request for ground troops from the United States.

``We don't anticipate one, we're not considering one, nor would we think one is necessary. In this case we're prepared to consider ways to support the U.N. and make sure the U.N. out there can do its job,'' said Mr. Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesperson. But nothing has really been ruled out by the United States, including the participation in a rapid deployment force in coordination with other countries.

In praising the United Nations for the manner in which this crisis was being worked out, the administration is saying that Washington will be discussing with the world body on how to make the international effort ``as effective as possible.''

The United States has said that Mr. Sankoh's amnesty may have run out. By killing four United Nations peacekeepers and taking several hostages, the administration is maintaining that he has violated a peace accord signed in Togo last July where the rebel leader agreed to halt the civil war which saw brutalities beyond belief.

``The key point ... is that there was an amnesty attached to the Lome Agreement and he was given a second chance, and any actions that take place after that could invalidate or risk losing that chance,'' the State Department spokesperson argued.

Meanwhile, the United Nations is saying that the rebels holding hostages would be prosecuted.

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