Archive for Thursday, July 31, 2003

Sierra Leone rebel leader dies in U.N. custody

July 31, 2003

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— Foday Sankoh, an indicted war criminal whose Sierra Leone rebels routinely hacked off the limbs of men, women and infants during a 10-year campaign, died in U.N. custody at a Freetown hospital, the war-crimes court said Wednesday. He was 65.

Sankoh died late Tuesday, said David Hecht, spokesman for the U.N.-Sierra Leone war crimes court trying the rebel chief.

The imprisoned guerrilla leader, who reportedly suffered a mild stroke after his capture in early 2000, died of natural causes and was "granted a peaceful end that he denied to so many others," said a statement from the office of the court's chief prosecutor, American David Crane. Prosecutors promised a post-mortem to determine his cause of death.

"God has taken his course," said El Hadji Lamin Jusu Jarka, an official at a Freetown camp helping to provide housing and training to Sankoh's mutilated victims. "And God will judge him."

Jarka was one of Sankoh's victims -- his wrists are capped by metal claws.

Sankoh trained in the Cold War guerrilla camps of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and launched his insurgency in 1991, bent on winning control of Sierra Leone's government and diamond fields.

His drugged, drunken fighters increasingly targeted civilians by the late 1990s, killing, raping, and kidnapping civilians and burning homes. Prosecutors estimate the death toll at 75,000.

Sankoh's machete-wielding rebels made a grisly specialty of cutting off the hands, feet, lips and ears of men, women and children, including babies.

"This is a man who terrorized his people and almost destroyed Sierra Leone," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in New York. "In the end, he died an indicted war criminal, a lonely and a broken man."

Sankoh, who repeatedly broke peace accords, was arrested in May 2000 after his fighters gunned down more than a dozen peace demonstrators outside his Freetown home. After his capture, his health and sanity deteriorated rapidly.

Decisive military intervention by former colonial ruler Britain, neighboring Guinea and the United Nations crushed the rebels, and Sierra Leone formally declared the war over in early 2002 and held peaceful elections. Sankoh's rebel group stood candidates for parliament but received no seats.

Amputees used metal hooks on the stumps of their arms to shove their votes into ballot boxes.

A roughly 13,000-strong U.N. force -- the body's largest deployment worldwide -- is guarding Sierra Leone's fragile peace.

The Sierra Leone government hoped to see Sankoh face the war crimes court to explain his "barbaric acts," presidential spokesman Kanji Daramy said Wednesday.

Sankoh's testimony might have helped the West African country's people understand "what was happening in his mind, for him to have committed so many atrocities," Daramy said.

Sankoh, who also faced charges in the national court, appeared ill and disoriented almost from the start of his imprisonment.

"I'm a god," the handcuffed ex-warlord, disheveled and in matted white dreadlocks, told the court in June 2002. "I'm the inner god. I'm the leader of Sierra Leone."

Authorities said in October 2002 that Sankoh had suffered what they at first called a mild stroke.

The war-crimes court said last month it was pursuing a waiver on a U.N. travel ban against Sankoh so it could send him outside Sierra Leone for treatment. The court's acting chief of defense, John Jones, said then that Sankoh was in a "catatonic, stuporous state."

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