Sierra Leone rebels free children

Sierra Leone’s rebels freed 131 more child soldiers Friday and asked for the release of the insurgency’s leader, saying they had shown their good will by freeing children forced into their ranks, the Associated Press reported.

Two of the child soldiers handed over to U.N. officials by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) were girls, and the officials urged the rebel group to free more girls-many preteens, kidnapped for sex as boys were for combat, the AP reported. The release brought the number of children freed by the rebels over the past month to more than 1,000.

Fighters of the rebel RUF have killed, maimed, raped and burned alive thousands in a more than 10-year terror campaign aimed at toppling the West African nation’s government and controlling its diamond fields.

Sierra Leone’s government captured rebel leader Foday Sankoh late last year and his holding him at an undisclosed location while it pursues a possible international trial on human-rights violations.

A RUF statement Friday cited the release of child soldiers in asking for the freeing of 120 movement followers, including Sankoh, the AP reported. The government said it was going through the list of RUF detainees to see those who could be safely released and would make a statement soon.

Rebels announced this year they were ready to re-enter peace efforts.

The peace overtures came with the rebels under heavy military pressure from forces of Britain, the United Nations, and neighboring Guinea, and with U.N. sanctions punishing neighboring Liberia for its alleged support to rebels.

Sankoh’s fighters have made peace accords in the past only to resume fighting.

The country has been largely calm since the government signed a cease-fire with rebels in Nigeria in November. Almost 6,000 combatants on all sides have surrendered their arms in recent weeks.

U.N. force commander Lt. Gen. Daniel Opande flew to the diamond-rich Tongo fields Friday for the latest rebel release of kidnapped children, the AP reported.

Bituin Gonzalez, a child-protection adviser for the U.N. mission, appealed to the rebels to release the many girls still in their custody, the AP reported.

Rebel Col. Molesky Kallon responded by saying the rebels would release more child combatants in the future, including girls, the AP reported.

U.N. mission spokeswoman Margaret Novicki said the children freed Friday were in “fairly good condition,” the AP reported.