IRIN special report on ex-SLA/RUF "rift" [19990908]

IRIN special report on ex-SLA/RUF "rift" [19990908]

SIERRA LEONE: IRIN special report on ex-SLA/RUF "rift"

Abidjan, 8 September 1999 (IRIN) - The kidnapping last week of three Revolutionary United Front (RUF) commanders by members of the former Sierra Leone Army (ex-SLA) has fueled talk of a rift between the two groups, although the captives were released on Monday.

"The marriage between the RUF and the AFRC has ended in divorce," a religious leader in Freetown told IRIN.

The Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) - led by Lieutenant. Colonel. Johnny Paul Koroma - was the junta that ruled Sierra Leone after overthrowing elected President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in May 1997. After the coup, the AFRC invited the RUF to join it in Freetown.

When, in February 1998, the AFRC/RUF regime was ousted by the West African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, the ex-SLA - soldiers loyal to the AFRC - took to the bush along with the RUF.

Analysts say there are now two main rebel groups in Sierra Leone.

One is an RUF-dominated group headquartered in the eastern town of Kailahun and led by 'Major General' Sam Bockarie. The other comprises mainly ex-SLA, has its headquarters in the northern town of Makeni and controls most of the Northern Province.

However, within the northern group there are believed to be two sections. "Members of the (ex-)SLA in Makeni have relinquished authority to the RUF," one local analyst told IRIN, "but the group in the Occra Hills is a distinct entity. Although they use Johnny Paul Koroma as a figurehead it is difficult to know who is really in control."

Local military specialists say the location of the ex-SLA in the Occra Hills, about 50km from the capital, gives them relatively easy access to places such as Freetown and Lungi, site of the country's only international airport.

Zainab Bangura, coordinator of the non-governmental Campaign for Good Governance, told IRIN she was not surprised by reports of a rift between the RUF and the former soldiers. "The (ex-)SLA want to leave the bush and go back to the army whereas the RUF want political power," she said.

Members of the ex-SLA "do not want to be part of the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme because it is unlikely that they will fulfil the criteria for enrolment in the new army" Bangura added. "The bulk of them are illiterate."

On the other hand, one of the released RUF commanders told journalists his abductors had resorted to kidnapping partly because of frustration over delays in the disarmament process, one of the main points of a peace agreement that government and RUF representatives signed in Lome, Togo, on 7 July.

In a statement purportedly signed by 14 ex-SLA including Koroma, the former soldiers highlighted their "grievances and demands" with regard to the Lome agreement.

"Our attack on Freetown (in January 1997) made it possible for the release of Cpl Foday Sankoh and the convening of the Lome Peace Conference," they said in the statement, a copy of which was received by IRIN on 7 September. "To our greatest surprise we were totally unrepresented, unrecognised and marginalised in all the deliberations and final outcome of the Lome Peace Agreement."

The ex-SLA called for an addendum to the Lome agreement indicating that "all members of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Sierra Leone, who joined ... Koroma in the bush in February 1998 are reinstated, before any restructuring of the new army".

They added that all promotions made during the AFRC's reign should stand, ex-SLA who became officers in the bush should be retrained and benefits should be paid to the families of those killed or wounded in action.

The former soldiers also demanded the setting up of an armed forces restructuring committee including representatives of both the RUF and AFRC. Ex-SLA, they said, should be paid their salaries and retirement benefits and 24 former soldiers executed by firing squad on 19 October 1998 should be posthumously pardoned.

Every reference to the RUF in the Lome agreement should be amended to RUF/AFRC, they added.

In an interview with Reuters in Monrovia on Monday, Koroma played down the reports of a split between the ex-SLA and the RUF. "I want the whole world to know that the RUF and the AFRC are still in alliance. Nobody will divide us," he said.

He also dismissed rumours in Freetown of an imminent attack on the city by his men, a view endorsed by Sankoh. "There will be no fighting," Sankoh told reporters in Abidjan on Tuesday. "You wait and see when I get back."

Sierra Leone's presidential spokesman, Septimus Kaikai, told IRIN the media had over-dramatised the situation. "Foday Sankoh and Johnny Paul Koroma are committed to peace." he said. "One or two people may be behaving badly but the release of Denis Mingo, Mike Lamin (both RUF) and the three other captives is a demonstration of the leadership's commitment to peace."

Two ex-SLA commanders, dubbed "traitors" by their captors, had also been abducted. They, too, were released on Monday.

Mike Lamin told reporters in Freetown that President Kabbah, Foday Sankoh and Johnny Paul Koroma should meet urgently.

In a statement issued on 7 September, ECOMOG said "arrangements had been intensified to provide accommodation and adequate security for the reception of Foday Sankoh and Johnny Paul Koroma in Freetown shortly".

One religious leader suggested that the onus should be placed on the RUF to resolve the situation since the impression given at the peace talks was that they represented all insurgents.

"We must send the issue back to the RUF as they tried to deceive everyone at the Lome talks," the source told IRIN. "The government is desperate for peace but if it tries to ally itself with the RUF (against the ex-SLA) it would be a big mistake."


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Item: irin-english-1567

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Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 1999

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Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar

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