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Sierra Leone Collapse Continues As Rebels Gun Down Protesters

By Douglas Farah

WASHINGTON POST -- FREETOWN

In another blow to U.N. efforts to restore peace to this battered nation, bodyguards of rebel leader Foday Sankoh Monday fired into a rock-throwing crowd of pro-government protesters, killing seven people, wounding 25 and sharply heightening tensions in the capital.

Adding to the sense of uncertainty, President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, in a nationally-broadcast radio address, lamented the killings, then added cryptically that “the exact whereabouts of Foday Sankoh cannot be determined,” fueling speculation that the controversial leader had been arrested by government troops. Sankoh is the leader of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and since last week his men have taken some 500 U.N. peacekeeping troops hostage. He is thought to be either in Freetown or its outskirts.

Monday’s march came as hundreds of foreigners gathered at hotels to await evacuation. Shortly after the killings, Britain, the former colonial ruler here, landed several hundred troops to guarantee the safety of its citizens waiting to leave. All nonessential U.S. Embassy personnel have already been evacuated along with all humanitarian workers and missionaries. Also Monday, U.N. and diplomatic sources said a U.N. helicopter sent to the northern Makeni area to deliver food and evacuate wounded was shot down by RUF forces.

The situation here has steadily deteriorated since January, when the U.N. started deploying troops around the country to enforce the July 1999 peace agreement between the rebels and the government. In exchange, rebel leaders, including Sankoh, were given senior government positions, mansions to live in, official cars and immunity for the gross atrocities committed during the brutal eight-year civil war, including amputating the limbs of thousands of people, abducting thousands of children from their homes and forcing them to become combatants, and a systematic campaign of rape.