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Sierra Leone celebrates rebel leader's capture

Mobs parade Foday Sankoh naked through the capital. They hope for an end to recent violence.

The leader of Sierra Leone's brutal rebel faction was captured and paraded naked through the capital Wednesday by raucous mobs hoping his capture would signal a swift end to a violent insurgency that has shaken the West African nation the past two weeks.

Foday Sankoh, whose forces have killed and maimed thousands of civilians since 1991, was captured nine days after he disappeared during a gunfight that killed 19 people outside his Freetown home.

At the request of Sierra Leone, a British helicopter flew Sankoh to nearby Lungi Airport, then to a "secure location," where he was being held by Sierra Leonean military police, said Lt. Cmdr. Tony Cramp, spokesman for British forces in the country as part of a U.N. peacekeeping mission.

Violence surged in war-battered Sierra Leone when the rebel Revolutionary United Front killed several U.N. peacekeepers and took 500 hostage after a dispute over disarmament. More than half remain in rebel custody. Western diplomats feared their capture, a violation of a peace accord signed in July, would frustrate U.N. peace efforts in other African zones.

U.S. and British officials welcomed the news of Sankoh's arrest.

"It is a positive development that he is located and that he can be dealt with appropriately," said Richard Holbrooke, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, "and that he will not be able to continue his outrageous agreement-breaking ways."

Others weren't so sure Sankoh's seizure would defuse the crisis. Although the rebels released another 80 peacekeepers Wednesday, U.N. and regional officials worried Sankoh's troops might use the remaining 280 hostages as leverage to secure his release. The last time Sankoh was arrested, in June 1997, his troops launched a rebellion that ended in a siege on the capital, Freetown.

"I think it makes it more difficult _ his arrest now, coupled with the continuing attack by the Sierra Leone army" _ to secure the release of the remaining hostages, said Reginald Goodridge, spokesman for Liberian President Charles Taylor.

Taylor, a close ally of Sankoh, has been asked to take the lead in getting the detainees released. On Sunday, he won the freedom of 139 of the U.N. hostages.

Like Angola's Jonas Savimbi, who returned to the bush rather than play the junior member in a coalition government after decades of civil war, Sankoh belongs to a class of guerrilla leaders who find political accommodation an ill-fitting suit. He spent seven years in prison in the 1970s for plotting a coup. In the early 1990s, he launched a brutal campaign to topple the government.

Sankoh was convicted of treason and sentenced to death in 1998, but escaped execution after his forces rolled into Freetown. Peace talks followed last July, brokered by the United States and other Western governments. As a result, the rebel leader was granted amnesty, named vice president _ an office he still holds _ and granted control over the prolific diamond region.

Part Maoist, part Christian fundamentalist, Sankoh orchestrated shocking atrocities. He slit his soldiers' skin and rubbed cocaine into the wounds to make them high, and then sent them not just to kill government soldiers, but also to torture and mutilate civilians. Many of his troops were children.

Responding to the current crisis, in which rebels have clashed with government and British soldiers, the government offered $5,000 bounty, big money in one of the world's poorest countries, for his arrest.

U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said it was the government's responsibility to decide what to do with Sankoh, but Human Rights Watch urged the U.N. to take an active role. It said Sierra Leone's justice system was incapable of trying the leader.

The rekindled crisis in Sierra Leone posed a crucial test for the U.N. at a fragile time in the international body's engagement with Africa. After failing to halt Somalia's slide into ethnic anarchy in 1993 and Rwanda's genocide in 1994, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said two years ago that "never again should the international community tolerate such suffering."

But the United States, Britain, and other Western governments refused to stop the carnage in Freetown a year ago, and London only deployed troops to its former colony in response to the current crisis.

"The U.S. drew a line around Sierra Leone and said this one is not us," said Roger Berry, a former congressional aide specializing in African affairs. "It is a localized power struggle with an ethnic base and unpredictable actors."

If Sankoh's arrest defuses the crisis in Sierra Leone, analysts said, it could restore support for the U.N.'s pending observer mission in another African conflict: the multinational war in Congo. The U.N. is due to deploy 5,537 monitors and protection forces to oversee compliance with an often-violated cease-fire.

U.N. officials have previously acknowledged that the organization may not be adequately prepared for the task in Congo, where as many as 21 sovereign and guerrilla forces are entangled in overlapping conflicts.

_ Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.