In a day of highs and lows for the U.N. peacekeeping mission, 29 captured peacekeepers were freed Monday in neighboring Liberia, but the remains of several soldiers in U.N. uniforms were discovered by government forces northeast of Freetown.
U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst said the skeletal remains of about a half-dozen men were found in U.N. uniforms bearing Zambian insignia. Several of them had been shot in the head. At least one Zambian identity document was retrieved near the bodies, he said.
Wimhurst cautioned, however, that it was too early to know if the men were peacekeepers, since the Revolutionary United Front has stripped many of its U.N. hostages of their uniforms. Rebels have been seen wearing stolen U.N. uniforms in other parts of the country.
"We are launching a thorough investigation to determine the identities," Wimhurst said. "It is deeply disturbing to see these men were deliberately killed, whoever they were."
The release of 29 peacekeepers in Liberia brings the number of freed U.N. soldiers to 255. More than 500 were captured by the RUF about three weeks ago, leaving more than half of the hostages unaccounted for. As in the previous releases, Liberian President Charles Taylor _ who was aligned with the rebels _ served as broker.
U.N. officials said the newly freed Zambian peacekeepers have reported tales of torture and other suffering at the hands of the rebels. Some of the peacekeepers reportedly have passed along messages to the United Nations demanding that RUF leader Foday Sankoh be released.
Sankoh, who military analysts say is no longer in firm control of the RUF, was arrested last week. He had been in hiding for nine days after his bodyguards opened fire on a crowd of protesters outside his Freetown home. As many as 21 people were killed or later died from their injuries.
The government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah has refused to link the release of the U.N. peacekeepers with Sankoh's detention. Kabbah has said Sankoh should be brought to justice, but no formal decision has been made to prosecute him.
Meanwhile, two Nigerian peacekeepers were killed Sunday in a shootout in Freetown.
The Nigerians apparently were killed in clashes with combatants aligned with former junta leader Johnny Paul Koroma, who was previously in partnership with the RUF but is now fighting alongside government troops. The Nigerians, once part of a regional intervention force, helped overthrow Koroma's regime in 1998.