Sierra Leone’s ailing former rebel leader Foday Sankoh, indicted for war crimes and reviled for launching one of Africa’s most horrific wars, has died in a hospital, a U.N.-backed war crimes court told Reuters on Wednesday.
Sankoh led the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels who spread terror during Sierra Leone’s savage decade-long civil war by hacking off the limbs, ears and noses of civilians, raping women and girls and killing without scruple.
“This is a man who terrorized his people and almost destroyed Sierra Leone. In the end, he died an indicted war criminal, a lonely and broken man,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan reportedly said in New York.
Sankoh, a born-again Christian whose health had been deteriorating rapidly since he suffered a stroke last year, died on Tuesday night in a Freetown hospital, Reuters reports. He was in his mid-60s.
Fatou Mbaye Sankoh, who married the rebel leader nine months before his arrest in May 2000, said her husband had been killed and was the victim of negative propaganda, Reuters reports.
“He was very, very sick and nothing has been done for him. This is the only thing they could do, they killed him,” she reportedly said in a BBC radio interview.
After his arrest, Sankoh was handed over to the Sierra Leone-based court and charged with crimes against humanity including murder, rape, sexual slavery and extermination.
“It’s a pity that a man who has killed, maiming the entire fabric of the nation for 10 years, is no longer alive to face the special court whose position is to bring justice,” Sierra Leone’s presidential spokesman Kanji Daramy told Reuters.
The grizzled, charismatic rebel chief, who was known to his ruthless bush fighters as “Popay” or “Papa,” told journalists at a court hearing in 2002 that he was a “living God.”
But recently he could not walk, talk or feed himself.
At his first appearance at the war crimes court in March, Sankoh sat in a wheelchair, his head slumped on his chest, his right leg shaking and his gray hair twisted into dreadlocks. A psychiatrist who examined him described him as catatonic, Reuters reports.
Sankoh started Sierra Leone’s war in 1991. Some 50,000 were killed before the conflict was declared over in January 2002.
After a Nigerian-led West African force drove a military junta and the rebels out of Freetown in 1998, the RUF launched a terror campaign called “No Living Thing.”
An estimated 6,000 people were killed in an attack on the capital the following year.
The rebels then flouted a peace deal, taking hostage hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers in May 2000. Britain sent in troops to beef up the U.N. force and Sankoh was captured after his fighters shot 20 protesters outside his Freetown home.
A former army corporal and radio operator, Sankoh was trained in Libya’s guerrilla camps, like President Charles Taylor of neighboring Liberia, who has also been indicted by the court for arming Sankoh’s rebels in return for diamonds.