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Sierra Leone Government Overthrown

West Africa: Elected president flees country as rebel soldiers, citing failure of peace efforts, seize legislature.

May 26, 1997| From Associated Press

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Rebellious soldiers toppled Sierra Leone's elected president in a bloody coup Sunday, and an army major said he was seizing power because the government failed to maintain the peace.

Soldiers led by Maj. Johnny Paul Koroma took control of the legislature in this small West African country after heavy fighting. They then burned the national treasury, prompting President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah to flee into exile in neighboring Guinea.

In the first nationwide statement since the fighting began Sunday, Koroma said he had assumed control of Sierra Leone and was inviting an important rebel leader to join his government.

The coup comes six months after the civilian government signed a peace accord with rebels, ending a five-year civil war. In recent weeks, however, at least some rebel factions had resumed fighting, leading to criticism that the government's neglect had helped revive the violence.

"As custodians of state security and defenders of the constitution, [we] have today decided to overthrow the Sierra Leone People's Party government," Koroma said, "because of their failure to consolidate the claims achieved by the brokers of peace."

He invited Foday Sankoh, the leader of the Revolutionary United Front that waged the civil war, to join his government. Sankoh was being held in a Nigerian jail on arms-smuggling charges, and Koroma appealed to that country to release him.

The coup began as mutinous soldiers launched a prison break that freed soldiers on trial for previous coup plots.

The rebel troops then took over the National Assembly after clashing with Nigerian troops who were stationed in Freetown, the capital.

Stray weapons fire, including rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, hit the U.S. Embassy, according to a Marine guard. The building suffered some damage, but there were no casualties, the guard said.

The State Department said two Americans were injured when their home was looted, but there were no other reports of injured foreigners.

Late Sunday, national radio announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew and said the country's borders had been closed. Freetown's airport also was shut down.

In Washington, the White House said the United States was ready to evacuate Americans if necessary. An estimated 400 U.S. citizens living in Sierra Leone were being urged to remain indoors, White House spokesman Barry Toiv said.

"We are concerned by the threat not only to civilians," Toiv said, "but also to the democratic process in Sierra Leone."

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