The government of Sierra Leone is denying a newspaper report saying officials plan to release jailed rebel leader Foday Sankoh. The rebel leader's release has been one of the key demands made by his group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), as it continues to disarm in key areas of the country.
Word of Mr. Sankoh's impending release appeared in the newspaper "Concord Times," published this week in the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown. The newspaper quoted Justice Minister Attorney General Solomon Berewa as saying Mr. Sankoh would soon be released.
On Friday, the country's information minister, Cecil Blake, angrily denied the report. Speaking to VOA, he said Mr. Berewa was misquoted following a news conference that was called to discuss the issue of a special court that is to be convened after the country's bloody 10 year civil war. "The report is totally and absolutely false," he said. "The attorney general made reference only to the operations of the court and assured the audience that it would not be held in the next month or two. We are still in the process of determining the timing. No reference was made as to whether or not [Mr.] Sankoh was going to be released. Absolutely not. So, we were amazed that such a headline was produced the following day."
Many Sierra Leoneans hold Foday Sankoh responsible for atrocities committed against civilians, including children, during the country's 10 year civil war. Mr. Sankoh has been held at an undisclosed location in Freetown since he was detained last year after his bodyguards opened fire on a group of demonstrators and killed about 20 people. The government says part of the reason it has been holding the rebel leader is to protect him against reprisals by angry citizens.
Rebels have repeatedly demanded Mr. Sankoh's release. Last week, the government freed a number of RUF members and sympathizers. The releases came as rebels and pro-government militias continue to disarm under a U.N. sponsored program.
Since May, about 14,000 combatants - rebels as well as pro-government militias - have handed in their weapons in areas including the key diamond mining district of Kono. Disarmament began in yet another area, the Moyamba district, this week.
The special representative of the United Nations secretary general in Sierra Leone, Oluyemi Adeniji, says the disarmament has been possible in part because Mr. Sankoh is no longer at the helm of the RUF. In remarks last week, Ambassador Adeniji said Mr. Sankoh's ambitions to become president of Sierra Leone had been getting in the way of peace interests.