Sankoh a Hot Potato in Government Hands

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Now that they've arrested rebel leader Foday Sankoh, the Sierra Leone government and the U.N. have to figure out what to do with him. And as long as Sankoh's men continue to hold some 350 U.N. peacekeeping troops hostage, that's an acute dilemma. The Sierra Leoneans, who sentenced Sankoh to death in 1998 before being obliged by an abortive peace deal to make him vice president, may be inclined to punish him for his innumerable crimes — a sentiment reflected in reports that he was paraded naked through the streets of Freetown by Sierra Leonean troops before being handed over to British paratroopers to be flown to a secret location. But the immediate priority of the U.N. remains the release of the hostages, and that's where the dilemma could arise.

Before Sankoh's dramatic escape two weeks ago, the U.N. had hoped to negotiate through him to persuade his men to release the captive peacekeepers, and even after his capture Wednesday a Sierra Leone government spokesman expressed the hope that Sankoh would send a message to his men to stop their campaign. Information minister Dr. Julius Spencer also told the BBC that if Sankoh failed to comply, "appropriate steps" would be taken. But if the rebel forces that have terrorized Sierra Leone for much of the past decade remain loyal to Sankoh, they're likely to demand his release as part of the price for freeing the hostages.

However, there's been considerable speculation that the rebels behind the latest offensive might be taking orders not from Sankoh, but from other rebel leaders with links to neighboring Liberia; indeed, his contradictory statements at the beginning of the hostage crisis suggest he may have been taken off guard by the seizure. In addition, the fact that Sankoh was captured in the capital rather than having rejoined his comrades in the bush, as expected, implies that he may no longer have been in command of the rebel forces. But his almost mythical status among the RUF's fighters, most of whom were recruited as teenagers, can't be discounted. Last time around, Sankoh used the ability of his forces to brutalize the long-suffering Sierra Leoneans to parlay his way from death row into government. This time, his bargaining chip is likely to be 350 hapless U.N. peacekeepers.