In Sierra Leone, Saving Hostages May Cost Dearly

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The U.N.'s desperation to free its 347 peacekeeping troops held hostage in Sierra Leone may undermine the larger objective of ending that unhappy country's malaise. Even as the U.N. military commander on the ground was reportedly planning an offensive into the rebel heartland Tuesday, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's envoy in Freetown urged restraint in counterattacks against the rebels for fear of endangering the hostages. Liberia's President Charles Taylor, a longtime ally and patron of the Revolutionary United Front rebels, had over the weekend secured the release of some 139 peacekeepers after being urged to intercede by the U.N. But Taylor, himself a notorious warlord whose country has been the conduit for the diamonds mined by Sierra Leone's rebels to finance their war, warned Tuesday that any continuation of attacks against the RUF would endanger the lives of the U.N. personnel. And the international body appears inclined to heed the warning.

Negotiations, of course, remain the most viable means of pursuing the hostages' release — although the U.S. pulled back Tuesday from a plan to send the Reverend Jesse Jackson on a shuttle diplomacy mission to the region after the civil rights campaigner angered leaders in West Africa in reported comments that appeared to equate Sierra Leone’s murderous rebels with Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. But even without Jesse Jackson, negotiations inevitably involve give and take, and the rebels' call for a halt to any U.N. or government counteroffensive reflects their primary concern to maintain control of Sierra Leone's diamond fields to the south and east. Indeed, it was U.N. attempts to disarm the RUF in those areas, in line with last year's peace deal, that sparked the latest outbreak of violence. Most observers believe Sierra Leone's troubles will not end as long as the rebels remain in control of the diamonds — as they did after last year's peace deal — and negotiating a new compromise designed to free the hostages carries the danger of simply entrenching the problem. Mindful of the dangers, U.N. diplomats are attempting to isolate rebel leader Foday Sankoh from his comrades, suggesting they'll negotiate with other rebel leaders but that Sankoh's betrayal of last year's agreement makes him persona non grata. Ruling Sankoh out of the equation may help disorganize the rebels, but this war is about resources rather than politics, and as long as there are diamonds to be mined and powerful regional interests coveting them, there'll be guerrilla commanders willing to fight any attempts to restore government control over the mining territories.