FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — An outbreak of cholera in West Africa has infected more than 13,000 people and killed at least 258 people in Sierra Leone and Guinea, authorities said as they appealed for international assistance.
Sierra Leone's President Ernest Bai Koroma has declared the outbreak there an "emergency issue," and has set up a task force to prepare the budget that will be needed to stem the outbreak.
"All of this is the aftermath of the 11 years rebel war when we had a huge rural-to-urban migration and a huge population clustered in the urban area where adequate provision has not been made for water and sanitation. This is what we have been witnessing today," Minister of Health and Sanitation Zainab Hawa Bangura told The Associated Press.
She said that in the capital, Freetown, there have been about 100 deaths during the past month, especially in congested areas. That brings the total to at least 176 dead in Sierra Leone, while 82 deaths have been reported in neighboring Guinea.
"It is important to request help from the international community in order to spread the mobilization of resources," she said.
A child stands in pouring rain in the slum of Susan's Bay in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown, August 22, 2012. REUTERS/Simon Akam
Cholera is an infection of the small intestine, contracted by eating or drinking contaminated food or liquids. It can cause acute diarrhea and vomiting and can kill within hours.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said there has been a spike in reported cholera cases since mid-July and the onset of the rainy season. Over the past five weeks, 6,000 cases alone have been confirmed in Sierra Leone and many other cases might not been officially reported.
This current outbreak of cholera has the potential to be devastating and is proving very difficult to control," said Amanda McClelland, IFRC emergency health coordinator. "We are particularly concerned by the rising numbers in Freetown, which suffers from overcrowding, poor sanitation and lack of safe water access — all factors which contribute to this deadly disease."
Parts of Mali and Niger have also been affected by the outbreak, the Red Cross said.
Sierra Leone has announced a coroner's inquiry into recent shootings by the police, which have raised tensions in the West African state in the run-up to presidential elections in November.
Last week Sierra Leonean police killed two members of a vigilante group in Freetown, sparking outrage. Policemen then shot in the air to stop crowds marching on the president's office with the victim's coffins.
"We know that police can use arms, but we think they can only use arms when it's really the crunch," Sheka Tarawalie, Sierra Leone's deputy minister of information, told Reuters on Wednesday, Reuters reports.
Events last week were the latest in a series of incidents involving the security forces that have raised questions about the ability of the police to manage November's poll, which will test the nation's progress during a decade of relative stability.
In April, police cracked down on a protest by workers for iron ore miner African Minerals in the town of Bumbuna, killing one woman and injuring at least six others.
In September last year rioting broke out in Sierra Leone's second city of Bo and at least one person was killed after police intervened.
The coroner's inquiry will investigate the Bo, Bumbuna and Freetown incidents, according to a statement from the president's office.
"The police have been armed with very lethal weapons, and we believe they are not well trained to know when to use them," said Valnora Edwin, national coordinator of the Campaign for Good Governance, a local rights group.
The election, 10 years after the end of Sierra Leone's civil war, follows massive aid investment to reform Sierra Leone's security forces.
The United Kingdom's Department for International Development spent £27 million on a "justice sector development programme," between 2005 and 2011.
In April this year the U.N. Security Council warned Sierra Leone to "respond proportionately to threats to security," after the police purchased $4.5 million of weaponry, including heavy machine guns and grenade launchers.
After frantic diplomatic wrangling a deal was struck to transfer the heavier weapons to the Sierra Leonean army.
At a junction in Freetown, a large hoarding showing the cover of the local SierraEye magazine underlines domestic concerns.
"Election 2012 Role of the police: Fear or Fair?" it reads.
Francis Munu, Sierra Leone's inspector general of police, told Reuters he would co-operate with the coroner's inquiry. "As a democratic police service we are accountable to the law."
FREETOWN — Bone-white sand squeaks beneath your feet, the curved beach framed by lush forested hills, empty but for a handful of expats and intrepid tourists who have got wind of Sierra Leone's raw beauty. Weary of being a poster child for African conflict, Sierra Leone is working to lure back tourists, but for now enjoying some of Africa's most beautiful scenery -- like the palm-fringed Tokeh Beach -- is not for the faint-hearted.
Arriving at the run down Lungi international airport, situated across a wide estuary and four hours by road from Freetown, visitors have to decide how to cross the water to reach the capital. The British Foreign Office warns gloomily on its website that none of the options are "without risk."
Most flights arrive in the dark, and making the crossing in an aged ferry moving at a snail's pace or a faster water taxi in often rough waters with poor visibility, can be harrowing.
Helicopter transfers from Lungi airport to Freetown stopped in 2011, four years after 22 people, including the Togolese sports minister, died as a chopper crashed and burst into flames.
"It is a major challenge but also an opportunity for investment to be brought into that area: faster, better boats or a road system that will make you enjoy the scenery," said Cecil Williams, head of Sierra Leone's Tourism Board.
"We see tourism in the next five years as the industry that will bring maximum benefit for socio-economic development of this country."
Aside from the beaches, Sierra Leone boasts national parks rich in birdlife as well as elephants
Sierra Leone is shaped like a cut diamond and was ironically infamous as a provider of "blood diamonds" during its 11-year civil war, which ended about a decade ago and was one of the most brutal conflicts in recent history.
As it lures investors and woos travel writers -- in 2009 the Lonely Planet guidebook ranked Sierra Leone one of the world's top 10 places to visit -- it has rebranded itself "a diamond in the rough".
"Our war was a very gruesome one. Every time the word Sierra Leone reflects back on what happened, we have to fight that image of a war-torn zone," said Williams. Arriving in Freetown, the sea breeze affords a welcome respite from the thick tropical heat. Verdant hills ring the seaside capital, which is both crumbling and yet alive with construction.
Founded in 1792 as a home for freed slaves, Freetown is steeped in history that the government wants to play up apart from the west African country's stunning 360-kilometre (220-mile) coastline. In its chaotic and dilapidated streets, one can still find examples of Creole architecture in homes built by slaves returning from Nova Scotia.
The wooden two-storey houses sport vibrant hues like red, blue, green and yellow. Then there is Bunce Island, home to a 17th century castle, departure point for tens of thousands of slaves to the Americas. Sierra Leone, which attracted up to 100,000 tourists a year before the war began in 1991, mostly French, now wants to brand itself an eco-tourism destination.
"Our new strategy is to go for middle to upmarket tourism, we don't want mass tourism, we believe it destroys the environment, destroys culture and doesn't bring in much revenue," said Williams. Aside from the beaches, Sierra Leone boasts national parks rich in birdlife as well as elephants, the rare pygmy hippo and a sizeable chimpanzee population.
Tourist arrivals rose from about 33,000 in 2008 to 52,000 in 2011. However Williams says only about 20 percent of them were real tourists and not in the country on business. Despite poor roads and erratic water and electricity supplies, construction has begun on a $40 million (31 million euro) Hilton hotel, Radisson Blu is moving in and many more hotel chains are interested.
At Bureh Beach, a potential surfers' haven about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Freetown, music blares as locals kick a football around, no tourists in sight. Those who do visit can string up a hammock between palm trees, camp and enjoy freshly caught seafood barbecued on the beach.
Samuel Small, 34, muscular and smiling, describes himself as a tourist guide. "There are not too much tourists after the war. Just the NGOs," he said. "Every day I want to see white people, but now it is difficult."
Nearby, the dazzlingly white Tokeh Beach is still equipped with two helipads which used to bring in international jetsetters.
The ruins of private homes looted during the war stand shaded by palm trees as a stark reminder of the bloody past. Ali Basma, a Lebanese businessman born in Sierra Leone to a family which owned a beach resort that was forced to close during the conflict but re-opened in 2010, says interest is slowly growing.
"We look forward to so many holidaymakers now from all over the world. (People) think that Sierra Leone is unstable worldwide but ... we are very happy here, otherwise we wouldn't have invested a lot of money," he told AFP. Among the few visitors to Tokeh are Germans Henner Hilderbrand and his wife who have lived in Africa for years and first visited Sierra Leone in 1976.
"It is an extraordinary place. The truth is it is not easy to travel but once you discover this beach for example you will always want to come back," Hilderbrand said.
While some frolic in the warm water, a group of foreigners sit around eating lobster.
"Don't tell people about this place. We want it to remain a secret," one of them says, laughing.
An international court has delivered its verdict on Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor, finding him guilty of arming Sierra Leone's rebels who paid him in "blood diamonds". The three judges at a special United Nations court pronounced him guilty of aiding and abetting 11 counts of war crimes or crimes against humanity. But he was acquitted of criminal responsibility and "joint enterpise" on the same 11 charges. His sentence will not be delivered for several months.
The judge says a sentence hearing will be held on 16 May, with the sentence to be handed down on Wednesday 30 May 2012.
Dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and red tie, Taylor listened attentively and made notes as judge Richard Lussick started reading a summary of the verdict – the first ever against a former head of state by a world court since the Second World War Nuremberg trial.
The reading is being screened at the Special Court for Sierra Leone's main headquarters in the west African country's capital Freetown, from where his case was moved in 2006 over security fears.
In Freetown, people slowly started gathering to hear the verdict being issued at the Leidschendam court outside The Hague. Judge Richard Lussick speaking at the opening of the judgement hearing for Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor. In a wing set aside for victims to watch the verdict, Al Hadji Jusu Jarka, former chairman of the Amputees Association, is the first seated. He has followed the trial from the start.
"We as victims expect that Taylor will be given 100 years or more in prison," he said, his prosthetic arms folded in his lap as he recounted how the rebels held him down on the root of a mango tree in the capital and cut off first the left, and then the right, just above the elbow.
Taylor, 64, is accused of helping Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels wage a terror campaign during a civil war that claimed 120,000 lives between 1991 and 2001.
The trial, which saw model Naomi Campbell testify she had received diamonds from the flamboyant Taylor, wrapped up in March 2011. If found guilty, Taylor could be sentenced in four to six weeks. Prosecutors alleged that the RUF paid Taylor with illegally mined so-called blood diamonds worth millions, stuffed into mayonnaise jars.
During the trial, prosecutor Brenda Hollis told the court: "Charles Taylor created, armed, supported and controlled the RUF in a 10-year campaign of terror against the civil population of Sierra Leone."
As president of neighbouring Liberia, he acted as "chief, father and godfather to his proxy rebel forces in Sierra Leone," prosecutors added.
The former warlord has pleaded not guilty to 11 counts, dismissing the allegations as "lies" and claiming to be the victim of a plot by "powerful countries."
During Taylor's trial which began proper on June 4, 2007, some 94 witnesses took the stand for the prosecution and 21 for the defence. Taylor himself testified for 81 hours.
Campbell and actress Mia Farrow gave headline-grabbing evidence in August 2010 about a gift of "dirty" diamonds Taylor gave to Campbell at a charity dinner hosted by then South African president Nelson Mandela in 1997.
Judges also heard gruesome testimony from victims of the Sierra Leone conflict, including a witness who said he pleaded with RUF rebels to cut off his remaining hand so they would spare his toddler son.
Others said Taylor's fighters strung human intestines across roads, removed foetuses from women's wombs and practised cannibalism, while children younger than 15 were enlisted to fight.
One witness said he was present when the Liberian leader ate human liver.
During his own testimony, which began in July 2009, Taylor called the trial a "sham" and denied allegations he ever ate human flesh.
Nigerian authorities arrested Taylor in March 2006 when he tried to flee from exile in Nigeria after stepping down as Liberian president three years earlier in a negotiated end to a civil war in his own country.
He was transferred to the SCSL in Freetown, but in June 2006 a UN Security Council resolution cleared the way for him to be transferred to The Hague, saying his presence in west Africa was an "impediment to stability and a threat to the peace."
The court, set up jointly by the Sierra Leone government and the United Nations, has already convicted eight Sierra Leoneans of war crimes and jailed them for between 15 and 52 years after trials in Freetown.
Sierra Leone's government should explain why it bought millions of dollars worth of assault weapons to equip a recently enlarged paramilitary wing of its police as the country prepares for elections in November, the outgoing U.N. envoy said on Thursday.
Michael von der Schulenburg told the U.N. Security Council that according to a leaked shipping document the weapons bought by the West African state in January included heavy machine guns and grenade launchers and the purchase was "of great concern."
"Sierra Leone is under no arms embargo. However, given Sierra Leone's progress in establishing peace and security throughout the country and its relatively low crime rate, it is not clear why the police would need such weapons," he said.
He urged the government to clarify the weapons shipment and explain the intended use of the arms.
Schulenburg left Sierra Leone in February, saying that his posting had been cut short by the United Nations under pressure from Sierra Leone's President Ernest Bai Koroma in a move that Schulenburg said would be seen as "opening the door to manipulating the election outcome in his favor."
A spokesman for Koroma denied asking the United Nations to remove the outspoken Schulenburg.
Philip Parham, deputy U.N. ambassador for Britain, which this month holds the U.N. Council's rotating presidency, said the 15-nation panel would reflect on Schulenburg's departure.
He told reporters the council would also discuss the issue with the U.N. Secretariat "to ensure that as far as possible we avoid any sense that a host government can have a veto over the leadership of a U.N. mission for reasons that are not valid."
Sierra Leone is recovering from an 11-year civil war that left some 50,000 dead and finally came to an end in 2002, after a British military intervention stiffened a floundering U.N. peacekeeping mission.
U.N. troops withdrew from Sierra Leone in 2005 but the world body retains a mission of about 200 people with a mandate to help ensure the forthcoming election is peaceful and credible.
"The forthcoming elections in November will be the major test for the country's nascent democracy. Sierra Leone must pass this crucial test in its history without allowing the demons of the past to re-emerge," Schulenburg said.
Sierra Leone's Foreign Minister Joseph Dauda told the Security Council that the government was committed to ensuring peaceful, free, fair and transparent elections in November. He did not address Schulenburg's question about the arms shipment.
"The government has demonstrated strong political will in dealing with issues of political violence in whatever shape or form and irrespective of party affiliation, and will continue to use the legal instruments to bring perpetrators of violence to justice," Dauda said.
But Schulenburg said there had been "worrying signs" ahead of the poll, including an attack on the opposition presidential candidate, an attack by opposition members on property of the governing party, a three-month ban on political party rallies and a break-in at a newspaper critical of the government.
"Further the hardening tone of the political rhetoric is of concern and all sides must refrain from extreme and unsubstantiated accusations," he said.
"Sierra Leone has the potential to become a success story but it will need the continued support and vigilance of the Security Council - especially at this time of these elections," Schulenburg said.