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IRIN Update 677 of events in West Africa

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UNITED NATIONS
Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Integrated Regional Information Network for West Africa
Tel: +225 22-40-4440
Fax: +225 22-40-4435
e-mail: irin-wa@irin.ci

SIERRA LEONE: Sankoh sets conditions for disarmament

The leader of the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP) told Sierra Leone's parliament on Wednesday that he would not order his fighters to disarm unless there was a simultaneous disarmament of other factions, AFP reported.

Since the signing of the Lome Peace Accord in July, the former rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, had repeatedly promised to allow free access to UN peacekeepers throughout the country and had been on several sensitisation trips purportedly to encourage his fighters to disarm nationwide.

However the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) has been trying to deploy in rebel-held, diamond-mining areas for several weeks, but local rebel commanders have prevented them from doing so. The most recent incident occurred on Monday when RUF rebels stopped Indian peacekeepers from travelling to the eastern town of Kailahun.

An opposition member of the Sierra Leonean parliament, Victor Foh, said he had been in the RUF base in Kailahun and believed that Sankoh was not fully committed to the peace process. "His fighters have only to hear the voice of Sankoh and they would disarm without delay," AFP reported Foh as saying. Sankoh reportedly told parliament on Wednesday that he would travel to Kailahun on Friday with a view to disarming his fighters, AFP said.

Sankoh has recently been accused by the international community of not fully supporting the peace process. Following the presentation on Monday of the UN Secretary-General's latest report on Sierra Leone, the UN Security Council expressed concern at the shortcomings in the implementation of the Lome Peace Accord, in particular the slow progress in the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme, and the continued violation of human rights.

Terming the situation "unacceptable", Council members said the responsibility lay with Sankoh and the RUF, who, they said, had not lived up to their commitments under the peace agreement.

NIGERIA: Middle belt vows to stay free of religious conflict

Caught between a north-south divide on the issue of Sharia law, people in central Nigerian states say they will no longer be a tool for any section of the country in pursuit of "myopic objectives", 'The Guardian' newspaper reported on Thursday.

The Middle Belt Progressive Movement said it was determined to ensure that what it called the northern oligarchy would not use the introduction of Sharia law to derail Nigeria's nascent democratic government.

The movement's members come from the Middle Belt states of Benue, Nasarawa, Kogi, Kwara, Plateau, Niger, Taraba, Adamawa and Gombe, as well as parts of Bauchi, Borno, Yobe, Kaduna, Kebbi and the Federal Capital Territory.

In a recent meeting, the newspaper said, they condemned former heads of state Mohammadu Buhari and Shehu Shagari who have supported the right of Muslim states to introduce all aspects of Sharia law. Formerly, only the social aspects of Sharia, such as those dealing with marriage and inheritance, were practiced in the north.

Supporters of the Islamic code now want Sharia courts to be given jurisdiction to judge Muslims on criminal matters. Christians living in the north fear they will also be subject to Sharia, although the pro-Sharia lobby denies this.

Claiming they have been marginalised by northern politicians, who ruled Nigeria from independence in 1961 until May 1999, the movement has said it is mobilising the youth of the Middle Belt to ensure the area is not dominated by anyone.

In a four-page communique, the newspaper reported, the movement said that in the recent religious riots in the northern city of Kaduna and in some parts of the southeast, Christians and Muslims from the Middle Belt were killed and their houses and businesses burnt down.

NIGERIA: Army troops rescue Shell employees held hostage

Armed soldiers have rescued 30 employees of the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell held hostage by youths in southeastern Nigeria's Delta State demanding that the company surface roads in their area, AFP reported.

About 500 soldiers from the 7th Amphibious battalion from the nearby town of Effurum stormed the Utorogu Gas Plant on Tuesday, rescuing the Shell employees and four soldiers who had been guarding the facility. The youths had entered the US $2.7-million plant on Monday.

The Utorogu Gas Plant, which supplies gas to the state-run National Electric Power Authority station at Egbin, near Lagos.

SENEGAL: Soldier killed by unidentified assailants

A Senegalese soldier was killed and another wounded on Wednesday in an attack by suspected guerrillas near the southern Casamance town of Nyassia, AFP reported.

Casamance has been the theatre of an 18-year war for independence by the Mouvement des forces democratiques de Casamance (MFDC). AFP reported that Wednesday's assailants attacked a minibus and robbed its passengers of their belongings. However, MFDC spokesman Alexandre Djiba told IRIN on Thursday that officers of the guerrilla force in the sector were investigating the incident.

"We have to find out the circumstances (that led to the incident)," he said.

The MFDC signed a ceasefire with the government in December 1999 but the agreement has been breached sporadically. Both parties have frequently blamed each other for such incidents which, however, have not unravelled the ceasefire deal or scuttled preliminary discussions on peace.

These talks, which participants hope will lead to a peace agreement, are set for the 15th day of each month in the Gambian capital, Banjul. However, there was no meeting on Wednesday due to the presidential elections in Senegal. Djiba said the MDFC would have to wait for the outcome of Sunday's elections and evaluate the new government's position on the Casamance question.

GABON: Government, WFP provide food for Congolese refugees

The World Food Programme (WFP) is to provide Congolese refugees in Gabon with 1,200 mt of food over a six-month period, the UNDP Resident Representative in Gabon, Toon Vissers, told IRIN on Wednesday.

Vissers, who represents the WFP in Libreville, said that following the signature of a letter of intent with the Gabonese government on Monday, the WFP will be able to buy about US $120,000 worth of food in Gabon for the refugees in the short term. Other food will be brought in mainly from Cameroon.

Food which the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other sources had provided for the refugees over the past few months ran out in mid-February, causing concern among humanitarian officials, sources told IRIN in Libreville.

To bridge the gap, Gabon's government has provided supplies for the refugees, Marc Adolphe Doumi-Mandatse, secretary-general of the Gabonese Foreign Ministry, told IRIN on Wednesday. "So far we have bought 180 tonnes of food with our own funds and money provided by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), China, Korea and la Francophonie," he said.

The food, worth 89 million CFA francs, and four million CFA francs worth of kerosene were sent to the provinces of Ngounie and Nyanga on 9 March, said Doumi-Mandatse, who chairs an inter-ministerial technical commission on refugees.

[The CFA franc is worth about 650 to the US dollar.]

Doumi-Mandatse said an additional 100 mt of food was needed until the start of April, when the food provided by WFP - destined for some 12,000 refugees - was expected to be delivered.

Some 13,500 Congolese refugees have registered with the UNHCR in Gabon, but Gabon's government believes the real number is more than 30,000 since many have not registered for fear of being deported, Doumi-Mandatse said.

Gabon's government had launched an appeal on 9 November 1999 for help in dealing with the refugee crisis. Thus far, Doumi-Mandatse said, all the bilateral financial assistance it has received has totalled 79 million CFA francs (just over US $121,000).

The OAU sent 45 million CFA francs, China donated 18 million, Korea 6.133 million, and la Francophonie 10 million. Cameroon's government and Gabonese NGOs also made contributions in kind, he said.

[See also 'GABON: IRIN Focus on refugee situation']

PEACEKEEPING: UN moves to control AIDS in missions

Efforts are being made by the United Nations to encourage awareness among its peacekeeping operations in the prevention and control of communicable diseases, Fred Eckhard, spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, reported on Wednesday.

UN Security Council resolutions on peacekeeping operations now include a clause that encourages efforts by the United Nations to sensitise peacekeeping personnel in the prevention and control of HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases, he said.

Although there are no statistics or evidence to suggest that UN peacekeepers have spread AIDS, Eckhard said, civilian and military personnel can be exposed to the dangers of contracting or spreading AIDS and, because of this, the UN has increased preventive measures.

Budgets proposed by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations for the UN missions in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo include money for buying and distributing condoms.

Abidjan, 16 March 2000; 15:30 GMT

[ENDS]

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