Troops roam streets of Freetown after looting

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — Mutinous troops patrolled deserted streets and terrified residents refused orders to return to work Monday after soldiers seized power and ousted the elected president.
Sunday’s coup — the third in five years — unseated President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, whose election in February 1996 ended five years of military rule. At least 15 people died and 40 were injured in the military takeover, which ravaged the capital with fighting, looting and arson.
Some of Kabbah’s ministers also fled the country, and news media in neighboring Guinea said Sunday that Kabbah had taken refuge there.
Leading the uprising was Maj. Johnny Paul Koroma, who said Kabbah’s government had failed to deliver the peace promised by an accord with rebels that ended the West African nation’s five-year civil war in November.
“The welfare of our people is paramount. It has to do with issues of the state,” said Capt. Paul Thomas, a spokesman for the mutineers.
He directed all government employees to appear for work, but most civilians stayed home and off the streets as soldiers wielding automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades cruised the city in commandeered vehicles.
Sierra Leone’s civil war killed at least 10,000 people and left nearly a third of its 4.5 million people homeless. In a radio broadcast Sunday, Koroma said he had invited Foday Sankoh, the leader of the Revolutionary United Front that waged the civil war, to join his government — an apparent gesture at reconciliation.
Sankoh is being held in a Nigerian jail on arms smuggling charges, and Koroma appealed to that country to release him.
The coup started when soldiers raided a Freetown prison at dawn to free conspirators in previous coup attempts. They seized the legislature and burned the national treasury building.
There was fierce fighting between the mutineers and Nigerian troops stationed in the capital to defend the government against rebel attacks. Stray fire damaged the U.S. Embassy but there were no injuries, a Marine guard at the embassy said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The State Department said two Americans were injured when their home was looted. There was no word on their names or details on their injuries.
Sierra Leone’s ambassador to the United States, John Leigh, said the military was using complaints about the peace process as an excuse to seize power. “These people are out to line their pockets,” Leigh told CNN.
“It’s going to bring more hardship and difficulty to the country, and that is not the way to make change,” Leigh said.
In Washington, the White House said the United States was ready to evacuate Americans if necessary. It urged the estimated 400 American citizens in Sierra Leone to stay indoors.
The U.S. State Department also issued a statement condemning the coup and called upon the Armed Forces Ruling Council now governing the country “to return authority promptly to the country’s elected leadership and parliament.”
In a statement issued in New York, the United Nations said Secretary-General Kofi Annan was “distressed” by the coup, which violated the principle that “governments, democratically elected, hall not be overthrown by force.”
He condemned the looting of U.N. offices, the commandeering of U.N. vehicles and the taking into custody of Sierra Leonean staff working for the United Nations.
Sunday’s was the third coup since 1992, when Capt. Valentine Strasser seized power. He promised democratic elections in 1996; when he looked ready to renege, Gen. Julius Maada Bio launched a coup, setting the stage for Kabbah’s election.