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Hundreds ignore flight ban, flee Sierra Leone

In this story:

May 30, 1997
Web posted at: 9:36 a.m. EDT (1336 GMT)

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (CNN) -- Hundreds of people fled Sierra Leone Friday, hopping rides with the U.S. Marines, the United Nations or other nations' aircraft to escape the country torn apart by mutinous soldiers in Sunday's coup.

Their flight came despite orders by coup leaders closing the country's airspace and banning all flights.

Early Friday, a plane carrying 396 people, including 200 Britons, arrived at London's Gatwick Airport. On Thursday, Lebanon evacuated nearly 250 people on a Middle East Airlines jet.

The U.S. Marines flew in 14 helicopters to evacuate Americans and other nationals assembled at a Freetown hotel. By mid-morning, 237 evacuees had already been brought from Freetown to the warship USS Kearsarge, about 20 miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. Of the 237, 157 were American citizens.

Col. Sam Helland USS Kearsarge
How the evacuations are proceeding icon(83K/7 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
How citizens are being evacuated icon (116K/7 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
"No danger whatsoever." icon (77K/6 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
The number of people being evacuated icon (72K/6 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
The coordination efforts icon (204K/17 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
The evacuees' demeanoricon (121K/10 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Col. Sam Helland of the USS Kearsarge said the force would probably evacuate more than 500 people. It had encountered no threats in the mission so far, he said.

Evacuees report harrowing tales

Many evacuees said they had been robbed of everything but their clothes before they fled the country. Maureen Cummings, 36, said that after five attempts to break into her family's compound, a group of soldiers rammed through the gate in a military vehicle on Sunday night.

"We sat in the house and opened the door," said Cummings, whose husband stayed behind to guard his flour mill business. "Seven of them just went through our home taking everything. It was really threatening."

Two Lebanese businessmen were killed during the coup. "Many things are happening over there, people are so afraid. They're stealing, raping," said Lebanese evacuee Darine Basmah.

A resident says lawlessness is running rampant.
icon   (171K/15 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Aid worker Vincent Dunn said looters ransacked his compound, and houses around and opposite him. "It was tense when the soldiers came into our compound, they were firing inside the compound. We confronted them and asked them not to shoot at us. We were quite disciplined," he said.


An unidentified female doctor described a similar situation. "I think the situation is desperate out there, they have destroyed Freetown, they have done so much damage, they have looted everything ... Provision stores have been not just looted but destroyed," she said.

Coup leaders denied that soldiers carried out the looting, claiming that civilians "dressing up" as soldiers were responsible.

Nigerian troop arrival particularly tense

Evacuees also said shots were fired in an apparent standoff at the airport between Nigerian peacekeeping soldiers, which control one end of the airport, and Sierra Leone troops, nominally responsible for the facility.

Nigerian troops overruled the Sierra Leone soldiers, insisting on landing a Nigerian C-130 Hercules transport with reinforcements and supplies.

Nigeria opposes the coup and favors the reinstatement of ousted Sierra Leone President Ahmed Tajan Kabbah. The country, a strong regional power, had already sent in 700 troops to help provide stability in Kabbah's fledgling democracy. It sent in 900 more Thursday, and is expected to move against coup leader Maj. Johnny Paul Koroma under a regional mandate.

State-run Nigerian radio on Thursday night warned Koroma and his fellow renegade soldiers to give up their coup. "(Kabbah) is the elected leader of his country, and Nigeria recognizes him as such. Maj. Koroma and his comrades should consider the party over and negotiate their return to the barracks," said state-run Voice of Nigeria radio.

Sunday's was the third coup in five years in Sierra Leone, a mineral-rich country impoverished by decades of corruption, political strife and civil war. Kabbah fled the country Sunday after the coup; he was democratically elected in February 1996, and installed a civilian government, ending several years of military rule.

Correspondent Jamie McIntyre and Reuters contributed to this report.

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