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African warlord dies in custody

By Times Wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 31, 2003

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast - Foday Sankoh, the Sierra Leone warlord whose rebels routinely hacked off the limbs of men, women and infants during a 10-year campaign, died Tuesday night in the custody of a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal, officials of the court announced Wednesday.

Sankoh, who had been charged with crimes against humanity in connection with the civil war that plunged his country into more than a decade of terror, was 66. The court said he died of natural causes in a hospital in the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, where he had been receiving treatment for what the deputy prosecutor called "a variety of complaints."

"He has been granted the peaceful end that he denied to so many others," Desmond de Silva, the deputy prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, said in a statement.

Sankoh, an itinerant photographer and army corporal with a primary school education, was trained in Libyan guerrilla camps along with his friend and ally, Charles Taylor, the besieged Liberian president, who also faces an indictment by the same war crimes court for his role in supporting the Revolutionary United Front in exchange for access to Sierra Leone's vast diamond fields.

Sankoh rose to become leader of a guerrilla group called the Revolutionary United Front. In 1991, he started a terrifying civil war.

A born-again Christian with near-messianic power over his rank-and-file, a great many of whom were poor boys from the countryside, Sankoh spread terror across the small West African nation by chopping off the hands, arms, legs and lips of civilians.

"This is a man who terrorized his people and almost destroyed Sierra Leone," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in New York. "In the end, he died an indicted war criminal, a lonely and a broken man."

Sankoh was arrested in May 2000 after his fighters gunned down more than a dozen peace demonstrators. After his capture, his health and sanity deteriorated rapidly.

Decisive military intervention by former colonial ruler Britain, neighboring Guinea and the United Nations crushed the rebels, and Sierra Leone formally declared the war over in early 2002 and held peaceful elections.

Sankoh was turned over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone in March. The 17-count indictment accuses him of a raft of crimes against humanity, including murder, rape and extermination.

Sankoh appeared ill and disoriented almost from the start of his imprisonment.

"I'm a god," the handcuffed ex-warlord, disheveled and in matted white dreadlocks, told the court in June 2002. "I'm the inner god. I'm the leader of Sierra Leone."

- Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

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