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Agreement Reached On Trials For Atrocity Suspects In Sierra Leone - 2002-01-17

The United Nations and the Sierra Leonean government have signed an agreement to establish a special court that would try those suspected of committing atrocities during Sierra Leone's ten years civil war.

The agreement establishing a special court was signed by Sierra Leone's Justice Minister Solomon Berewa and by U.N. under-secretary for legal affairs Hans Corell at a ceremomy in Freetown, Wednesday.

A special U.N. team has been in Sierra Leone in recent days laying down the goundwork for the court. The document formally established the court that will try those who bear the largest responsibility for atrocities committed during the 10 years conflict. The war pitted government and pro-government forces against rebels with the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF in fighting that centered on gaining control of the west African nation's rich diamond field.

The war became known for the tactics used by some of the fighters who hacked off the limbs of the inocent civilians, including small children.

In all an estimated 200,000 people died in the conflict. Some former rebels have opposed the establishment of the special court charging that will result in witch-hunt and hamper reconciliation efforts. Other said they support the idea of a court because they believe it will help Sierra Leoneans distinguish between combatants who committed atrocities and those who did not.

Among those expected to face try is jailed RUF leader Foday Sankoh who many in Sierra Leone blamed for pushing rebel fighters to committ atrocities against civilians. Mr. Sankoh was arrested nearly two years ago and has been held at an undisclose location.

At the sigining ceremony on Wednesday U.N. and Sierra Leonean officials said the establishment of the special court is necessary part of the healing process as the country began to emerge from a decade of civil war. The signing ceremony took on a tone of celebration. Officials offer toast for the future of Sierra Leone saying a new time of peace and reconciliation is beginning.

The establishment the court followed an eight-month of disarmament process in which more than 47,000 former combatants handed over their weapons to U.N. peacekeepers. The disarmament carried out under the term of 1999 peace agreement was made possible following the arrival of British troops and the deployment of 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers.