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Sierra Leone rebel declares himself head of state

May 25, 1997
Web posted at: 8:27 p.m. EDT (0027 GMT)

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (CNN) -- Rebellious soldiers claimed control of this small West African nation Sunday after ousting President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, who fled into exile in neighboring Guinea.

By late Sunday, the coup leader, a relatively unknown army major named Johnny Paul Koroma, declared himself the new head of state and invited fellow rebel leader Foday Sankoh to join the government.

"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 over national radio.

The announcement was made following a dramatic series of events Sunday in which rebels seized the legislature, burned the national treasury and wreaked havoc throughout the capital.

Coup leaders imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and said that the country's borders had been closed. The Freeport airport also was shut down.

A spokesman for the mutineers, Capt. Paul Thomas, said looters would be shot on sight. Meanwhile, rebellious troops were seen pillaging houses in an affluent section of the capital.

Deposed President Kabbah fled to Conakry, Guinea, according to Guinean newspaper L'Independante.

The coup comes six months after the civilian government signed a peace accord with the rebel Revolutionary United Front. The agreement ended a five-year civil war, which had left at least 10,000 people dead and nearly a third of the nation's 4.5 million residents homeless.

Gun battles rage in capital

The coup started early Sunday when about 20 heavily armed men stormed Freetown's maximum security prison and freed an estimated 600 inmates, including some soldiers jailed for plotting against Kabbah. They then swept through the streets.

The mutineers took over the national assembly after clashing with Nigerian troops near the presidential office complex in Freetown, witnesses said. Nigerian troops were stationed in the capital to help defend the civilian government against rebels.

Stray fire, including rocket-propelled grenades and mortar, hit the U.S. Embassy, about 200 yards from the national assembly building. The embassy suffered damage but there were no reports of injuries.

But hospital officials said five civilians were killed elsewhere in the capital as gun battles raged most of the day. The State Department said two Americans were injured when their home was looted. There was no word on their names or extent of injuries.

United Nations condemns coup

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a statement Sunday condemning the coup. Annan said he was "distressed" by Sunday's events and emphasized the need for a better democratic system for Sierra Leone.

"The United Nations and the international community firmly uphold the principle that the will of the people shall be the basis for the authority of government and that governments democratically elected shall not be overthrown by force," the statement said.

The United Nations had been trying to help the country recover from the civil war.

In Washington, the United States urged its citizens in Freetown to stay indoors and said it was prepared to evacuate them if necessary. About 400 Americans live in Sierra Leone.


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