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Update No. 98/01 on ICRC activities in Sierra Leone

13-02-1998 Operational Update

Thousands of people from the peninsula have been converging on the centre of Freetown in a desperate search for shelter since the renewed outbreak of fighting between ECOMOG, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and local militias on Thursday, 5 February. ECOMOG's advance along three main routes towards the capital has all but cut off the peninsula from the rest of the country but it is often not clear which faction is responsible for the sporadic gunfire and shelling. The numbers of frightened and vulnerable civilians converging on the city centre looks set to multiply by the hour. Given the prevailing anarchic situation, the ICRC is extremely concerned at the potential for violations of international humanitarian law. On Tuesday 10 February, 600 people had surrounded the ICRC delegation seeking protection but by the following day their numbers had already swelled to more than 2,500. Medical assistance is currently being provided to 94 war-wounded there. The situation is also worsening in Makeni, Segbwema and Kenema.

Continued threats to an unsettled civilian population serve to further compound the problems caused by last year's events which provoked significant population displacements and saw an influx of refugees into Guinea Conakry and Liberia. Violence and skirmishes between various armed factions have been commonplace since the coup d'état masterminded by Major Johnny-Paul Koroma and his Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) on 25 May last year. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), keen to restore ousted President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's government to power, deployed their troops (ECOMOG) in order to enforce sanctions ag ainst the junta régime. Caught in heavy fighting and shelling between ECOMOG and AFRC troops, the civilian population is effectively trapped on the peninsula.

 Deteriorating security conditions impede humanitarian assistance  

Medical and surgical supplies to the war-wounded and the displaced are considered as urgent by the ICRC but for the moment, systematic looting of ICRC stocks, impassable roads and an extremely precarious security situation are making all movements impossible. For the moment, the ICRC will continue to respond to the needs of those who have taken shelter in the delegation compound.

 Specific activities during the past week  

Freetown

All ICRC offices have been on stand-by since ECOMOG's radio announcement of 6 February alerting people to their decision to use military action against the AFRC. After more than 10 hours of intensive fighting, the delegation seized the opportunity of calm during the night of Sunday 8 February and the following morning to deliver essential medicines and supplies to Connaught hospital. An indefinite number of wounded civilians remain trapped in Kissi but the situation is too unstable for any evacuation at this stage. A group of war-wounded and patients from a therapeutic feeding centre succeeded in walking from Kissi to Connaught hospital following severe security incidents on Friday afternoon.

 Incidents of war-wounded in Freetown (06.02 - 09.02.98)  

Treatment centres

Civilians

Military

Total

Wilberforce hospital (military)

0

57

57

Connaught hospital

76

2

78

First aid posts (delegation)

64

0

64

 TOTAL  

140

59

199

Kenema

Alarmed by heavy fighting on Sunday, many of the town's population converged on the ICRC delegation but were later moved on by the army. Since the main hospital remained closed due to the violence, ICRC staff set up a small hospital in the ICRC compound. On Monday, twelve seriously injured people were admitted and five operations were performed on the spot by the ICRC surgeon and Merlin doctor. Less seriously injured have since been admitted and are being treated in the first aid post. Fortunately, the ICRC managed to organise a helicopter flight between Monrovia and Kenema on Wednesday 4 February (just before the fighting started), allowing the delivery of essential medicines and equipment.

 A reminder of usual ICRC programmes in Sierra Leone  

The ICRC has been operational in Sierra Leone since 1991 with an expatriate staff currently standing at 27. Fift een of these are based in Freetown.

Agricultural programmes conducted over the course of the last year have enabled much of the population to become self-sufficient in food, helping to minimize the effects of the embargo placed on the country. However, isolated pockets of vulnerable people still exist and much of

the ICRC's work involves delivering food and non-food assistance to the internally displaced and to some 5,000 other beneficiaries in various institutions country-wide. In addition, the ICRC actively supports health centres, posts and clinics in Pujehun, Kailahun, Kenema and Freetown. Water and sanitation programmes help to ensure against epidemics and diseases.

It is hoped that dissemination programmes will help to encourage parties to the conflict and any other entities or individuals who have taken up arms to comply with the rules of international humanitarian law. It is particularly important for respect to be granted to civilians and the Red Cross emblem thereby ensuring that the war-wounded and sick have access to medical care.