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Albright Queries Sierra Leone Peace

Africa: Secretary of State meets leaders and victims of brutal civil strife. She hints that U.S. may still support a war crimes tribunal.

October 19, 1999|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, visibly shaken by a visit to a camp for victims of Sierra Leone's brutal civil war, said Monday that the United States may call for a Balkans-style war crimes tribunal despite a peace agreement promising amnesty for rebel troops.

"In the end, it is very difficult to have peace and reconciliation without justice," Albright told a news conference amid meetings with President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and rebel leaders Foday Sankoh and Johnny Paul Koroma.

Although senior U.S. officials have suggested that a single-minded pursuit of war crimes suspects might reignite the 8-year-long conflict, Albright said peace and justice must proceed together.

Her resolve may have been strengthened by an encounter with a 2-year-old charmer named Mamona. The little girl, who climbed onto Albright's lap, appeared oblivious to the fact that her own right arm had been hacked off at the elbow by rebel soldiers pursuing a scorched-earth campaign.

More than 500 war amputees are being fitted with artificial limbs at the camp in the Freetown slum of Murray Town. Unlike the victims of other conflicts who have lost arms and legs to land mines, most of Murray Town's victims had limbs hacked off by rebel troops wielding machetes.

"It is hard to reach out your hand to shake hands with someone and realize they don't have a hand," Albright said.

A July peace agreement between Kabbah's government, Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front and Koroma's Armed Forces Revolutionary Council called for a power-sharing plan that would bring Sierra Leone's insurgents into a coalition government. The plan offered a broad amnesty for war crimes. According to U.S. officials and international human rights groups, most of the atrocities in the West African nation were committed by the rebels.

Albright met for about 20 minutes at the U.S. ambassador's residence with Sankoh and Koroma. According to a senior U.S. official, the secretary of State made clear that the international community holds them responsible for the horror that has gripped Sierra Leone. She said it is up to the rebel leaders to make sure the peace agreement works, the official added.

Albright told reporters that Washington will give the Sierra Leone parties some time to show that peace will work. But she said an international tribunal must be "held out as a possibility" in case the local process falters.

"One of the things we have learned a lot about in recent years is how to combine an inside investigation with the possibilities of outside help in making sure justice is done," she said.

Earlier in the day, Albright met at the presidential compound with Kabbah and rebel leader Koroma. Sankoh, the more powerful of the rebel leaders, was invited to that meeting but did not turn up, producing speculation that he had snubbed the secretary of State.

But Sankoh arrived a few hours later and went immediately into the meeting with Albright and Koroma. Officials said Sankoh explained that he had been delayed in returning from a trip to urge his fighters still in the bush to accept the peace plan. Albright applauded that effort.

A U.S. official said Sankoh told Albright: "I started this [war] and I intend to stop it."

Albright came with offers of $55 million in new humanitarian assistance and a promise that the United States will forgive $64 million of official debt if the government works out an economic recovery plan with the International Monetary Fund. About $32 million of the aid will be in food.

Albright also said that Washington will grant about $1 million to a new Sierra Leone government commission trying to get a handle on the country's chaotic diamond business. The rebels used diamond deposits to finance their war effort and to make some of their leaders rich.

At the camp for war refugees, Albright delivered a vacuum pump used to form plastic artificial limbs. The camp's 30-year-old model quit working recently.

David Evans, who lost both legs in Vietnam, works in the camp on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans of America. He said countries like Cambodia have more amputees as a result of uncontrolled land mine warfare. But in other war zones, he said, "You don't see children with both hands chopped off."

As Albright arrived, a group of children serenaded her with: "We want peace, no more war. We want peace in Sierra Leone."

Tens of thousands of people died in the conflict, and many of the country's 4.7 million inhabitants were displaced.

The rebels are also accused of abducting thousands of children, conscripting boys as soldiers and forcing girls into sexual slavery. International human rights groups say many of these children are still being held, despite a clause in the peace pact requiring their release.

Before Albright's trip, human rights groups and some nongovernmental Africa experts criticized the Clinton administration for failing to adopt the same response to atrocities in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in Africa that it made in Kosovo.

"The United States has not pursued justice in Sierra Leone as it has in other parts of the world," Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, said last week. "We believe the amnesty in Sierra Leone is a mistake and will undermine the peace agreement in the end. But having supported it, Secretary Albright should now do everything possible to see that these terrible crimes become part of the public record."

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