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Africa tested by ragtag rebels

A Nigerian-led peacekeeping force is set back in Freetown byyouthful militia this week.

More than 15,000 "peacekeeping" troops from West Africa nations and millions of dollars of logistical support from the US and Europe have failed to stop a ragtag bunch of rebels from shooting their way into Sierra Leone's capital this week. The rebels are mostly teenagers, often high on drugs.

This latest development in Sierra Leone's civil war has analysts wondering if regional armies can solve conflicts in Africa. Defending Sierra Leone's elected government is a regional force known as ECOMOG, led by Nigeria, the largest military power in West Africa.

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Thousands of Nigerian troops could not stop the advance after rebels released their comrades from a prison in Freetown on Wednesday. UN officials say that the rebels have taken control of more than half of the country, including a key diamond-mining town, in just two weeks.

Motivating the rebels is a death sentence set on their jailed leader, Foday Sankoh, by the Sierra Leone government.

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah had portrayed the rebels' recent incursions on the outskirts of the capital as a last-ditch effort by desperadoes. He categorically rejected negotiations with them unless they laid down their arms. He also said he would not release Mr. Sankoh.

But Mr. Kabbah's uncompromising stance masked his profound vulnerability. For one thing, he no longer has an army. It had joined up with the rebels in May 1997 to overthrow him - until the Nigerians came in and overthrew the junta in February and reinstated Kabbah.

Most of Sierra Leone's army then fled into the country's thick jungles along with the rebels and, according to human rights groups, massacred and tortured thousands of villagers. With no one to protect them, civilians formed various civil defense militias of their own to stave off the rebels and soldiers, who became known collectively as "sobels."

The militias called on Kabbah to supply arms and training. But observers say he was reluctant to give it. The militias are largely ethnic based. He feared they might one day turn against one another.

Kabbah decided instead to depend on Nigeria and, soon after being reinstated, renamed a major street in the capital after Sani Abacha, Nigeria's military ruler at the time. Observers speculate that General Abacha gave freely of his military with an eye on Sierra Leone's diamond reserves.

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The 16-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) created ECOMOG as a peacekeeping force to separate the warring parties in a conflict within the region. But it has mostly fought on behalf of one side of conflicts, and is largely an instrument of foreign policy for Nigeria - the superpower of the group.

ECOMOG troops have also done the bidding of other ECOWAS countries. In June, when civil war erupted a couple of hundred miles northwest of Sierra Leone, in Guinea-Bissau, its neighbors, Senegal and Guinea, intervened to prop up President Joao Bernardo Vieira.

Senegal's concern was that the rebels trying to topple Mr. Vieira were in cahoots with rebels fighting for autonomy of Senegal's southern region of the Casamance. But Guinea-Bissau's population mostly sided against Vieira, and the situation collapsed into minor war and then stalemate.

ECOWAS leaders convened and recently helped negotiate a solution in which Senegalese and Guinean troops would be replaced by neutral ECOMOG troops from other countries. But Nigeria has not offered any troops, and most other ECOWAS countries - with little to gain from going into that war zone - say they need Western nations to finance the deployment.

Since Abacha's death last year, Nigeria's new military leader, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, has promised to restore civilian rule and reduce the role of Nigeria's Army, both inside and outside the country. Sources say he has been quietly looking for an exit strategy from Sierra Leone.

One approach has been to retrain Sierra Leone soldiers who returned from the bush. But, in recent encounters with the rebels, units from the newly reconstituted force would suddenly switch sides in mid-battle and fight against the Nigerians.

Still, blame for the invasion of Freetown seems mostly to do with a halfhearted performance by Nigerian troops. Many have reportedly not been paid in months, and are tired, hungry, and ill-disciplined. Under ECOMOG, they have been fighting wars in neighboring countries for nearly a decade, and with little success.

In Liberia, untold numbers of Nigerian soldiers died trying to wipe out the rebel faction of Charles Taylor. Now he is the country's elected president.

Yesterday Nigerian jets bombed parts of Freetown. But Nigerian troops have little interest in sacrifice for the sake of democracy there when they are not sure they want democracy at home. The Nigerian Army's defeat in Freetown will add to the humiliation of handing its own tattered country over to civilian rule in May.

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