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Rebels Seize More U.N. Troops In Sierra Leone, Add Hostages

By Colum Lynch

Heavily armed rebels continued to seize U.N. troops in Sierra Leone Thursday, bringing the total number of hostages to at least 69, including a British officer and a Russian helicopter crew as well as Indian and Kenyan peacekeepers, U.N. officials said.

The officials, however, revised the death toll from clashes this week with the Revolutionary United Front, the rebel group that hacked off the limbs of numerous civilians during Sierra Leone’s civil war and that has repeatedly violated a peace accord signed last July. On Wednesday, Bernard Miyet, the French head of U.N. peacekeeping operations, reported that seven Kenyan soldiers were dead. Thursday, U.N. officials said they could confirm only that four Kenyan peacekeepers were “missing and presumed dead.” Eight other Kenyans have been wounded, they said.

The clashes continued Thursday despite a promise by the RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, that his forces would release all hostages under their control, carry out their commitment to give up their weapons, and allow U.N. troops and civilian employees to move freely throughout the West African country. It is unclear whether Sankoh was negotiating in bad faith or was unable to control his subordinate commanders in the bush.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan arrived at U.N. headquarters Thursday afternoon following a visit to Africa and headed directly into a meeting with his senior advisers. “We are trying to strengthen the (peacekeeping) force ... as we take steps to free our people,” he said.

Annan has appealed to Washington and key European capitals to transport three battalions of peacekeepers from Jordan, India and Bangladesh, into Sierra Leone to reinforce the U.N. mission, which currently has 8,700 troops. He also has asked key African leaders, including Libyan leader Moammar Ghaddafi, a long-time supporter of Sankoh, to use their influence to secure the release of the U.N. hostages.

Annan has voiced concern that the attack on the U.N. Mission in Sierra Leone, or UNAMSIL, may erode Western support for U.N. peacekeeping in Africa. While UNAMSIL is the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world, the Security Council also is preparing to send 5,500 troops and observers to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to try to shore up a shaky peace accord among several African states and armed factions.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, arrived Thursday in Congo as part of a Security Council delegation and urged the United States and other countries to not be deterred by events in Sierra Leone.

A State Department official said the United States is considering whether to provide airlift support, communications or other backing to bolster a U.N. rapid reaction force and deter future threats.