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U.N. won’t ease up on Sierra Leone

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FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — The U.N. force in Sierra Leone, fresh from the dramatic weekend rescue of more than 200 peacekeepers from a camp besieged by rebels, vowed Monday to take a tough line as it resumed deployment across the country.

Some 222 Indian peacekeepers were sprung from their camp in the eastern rebel stronghold of Kailahun in a dawn operation Saturday, provoking rebels to attack the rescue convoy as it made its way to a U.N. base at Daru, 50 miles away.

U.N. spokeswoman Hirut Befecadu told Reuters on Monday that Indian, Ghanaian and Nigerian peacekeepers who mounted the rescue had responded with full force, destroying a key rebel base in the area at Pendembu during the weekend operation.

"Jetley means business," Befecadu said of U.N. force commander, Indian Maj. Gen. Vijay Jetley.

Befecadu said she thought after the weekend operation the U.N. would be treated more seriously by the rebels, although she doubted they would abandon their ambush tactics.

Befecadu said the peacekeepers would soon be redeployed.

Seven U.N. personnel were injured during fighting with rebels who attacked the convoy along the rain-drenched, muddy road to Daru, she said.

"Maximum use of shock action and speed effect was employed," Befecadu said. Rebel casualties were thought to be heavy.

"They (the peacekeepers) went all out for it; they were going back to their base and had to fight anything in their way—there were road blocks and trenches in the road," she said. "This mission was to get these people out, it wasn't to get the RUF."

A group of 11 unarmed military observers who were in the camp with the peacekeepers were flown to Freetown on Saturday.

Many Kailahun peacekeepers who began the journey with the convoy arrived in Daru by helicopter, although all the tanks and armoured personnel carriers were brought from the Kailahun camp.

The Indian unit had been surrounded in the camp since early May, as rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) flouted a 1999 peace accord in a dispute over disarmament.

The U.N. operation seemed near collapse in May when hundreds of peacekeepers were taken hostage and rebels struck towards Freetown.

But it has since built up almost to its authorised strength of 13,000, making it the world's biggest U.N. peacekeeping force, and after the release of the last of the hostages last month and the rescue of the peacekeepers at Kailahun, it no longer has any personnel immediately threatened by the RUF.

A British U.N. officer told on his return to Britain on Sunday how he was threatened with death while being held by the rebels.

"I was certainly told that my life would be taken on a couple of occasions," Major Andrew Harrison, 33, told a news conference. "We were told in no uncertain terms by some pretty unsavoury RUF characters that they were going to wreak revenge on us for RUF casualties."

Harrison, captured by RUF rebels in May and later handed over to the Indian peacekeepers, said he had not suffered any prolonged beatings but had been struck a number of times.

Sierra Leone's civil war started when Foday Sankoh's RUF rebels took up arms in 1991 to fight what they called injustices. Sankoh, who is in government custody in Freetown, was arrested on May 17 with members of the RUF after his fighters attacked the U.N. peacekeepers, took hundreds hostage and marched on Freetown.