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Sunday, 7 May, 2000, 01:31 GMT 02:31 UK Rebels attack Freetown
Sankoh (right) meeting a UN general on Saturday A rebel force of up to 1,000 soldiers is attacking the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown, after a clash with United Nations peacekeepers.
UN official Philip Winslow said the fighters had reached the outskirts of Hastings, on the southern part of the Freetown peninsula about 20 km (12 miles) from the city centre.
The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels are travelling in vehicles captured from UN peacekeepers and are reported to be using civilians as human shields.
The rebel advance on Saturday evening came even as RUF leader Foday Sankoh was negotiating with UN officials and a Libyan envoy about a large group of UN staff taken hostage in the east and centre of the country.
State media announced that they had reached a deal under which UN peacekeepers would go on a joint mission with the rebels on Sunday to areas where UN staff have been taken hostage in the past week.
Whether this can take place, in the light of the rebel attacks outside the capital, is not known.
The UN believes almost 500 of its staff have been abducted by the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front in the past week, or are missing in the jungle.
RUF leader Foday Sankoh, who insists his men are holding no hostages, took part in the talks. He also denies the rebels are advancing on the city.
Mr Winslow said the rebel force was estimated to be between 500 and 1,000 men carrying "infantry-type" weapons.
"We tried to stop the rebels using all the resources at our disposal," he told the Associated Press.
Earlier, the UN said it had lost contact with 208 Zambian peacekeeping troops in the central area of Makeni, on top of 226 it said had been abducted by rebel forces on Thursday.
Concern has been mounting about the ability of the UN force to maintain order and fulfil its mission to supervise the peace deal which brought Sierra Leone's eight-year civil war to an end.
On Thursday a first group of 208 Zambian troops was taken and officials said they had now been moved east of Makeni to Koidu - a stronghold of rebel leader Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front.
Some 150 foreign aid workers have left Freetown by helicopter.
They represent a small proportion of the large expatriate aid community in Sierra Leone.
The United Nations says all of its key aid personnel will remain in place and commanders of the peacekeeping force itself say they hope to resolve the situation by dialogue.
The UN evacuated at least 90 non-essential staff and their families on Friday.
The UN force in Sierra Leone is made up mainly of soldiers from poor countries, lacking the equipment and training needed to be able to successfully defend the elected government against the rebels.
The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (Unamsil) - the UN's largest peacekeeping force - is intended to support a fragile peace deal in a war which has made millions homeless.
Its mandate envisages disarmament and demobilisation of an estimated 45,000 fighters ahead of elections in early 2001.
The RUF, which is officially part of a power-sharing government, accuses the peacekeepers of provoking clashes in the interior by trying to forcibly disarm rebel fighters.
In a statement issued on Saturday, the rebel group said disarmament was one-sided, with members of a pro-government militia known as the Kamajors refusing to turn in their weapons.
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