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Thursday, April 30, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sierra Leone Chief Ousted In Military Coup -- President Flees; Officers Claim Control

AP

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast - Soldiers in Sierra Leone, weary of fighting a war without enough money or ammunition, claimed to have ousted the government and forced the the president to flee today. Diplomats said it was not clear who was in control.

Diplomats in Freetown, the capital of this West African nation, said soldiers were patrolling the streets and appeared in charge, but they did not know to whom the soldiers reported. The diplomats spoke to colleagues in Abidjan.

One Western diplomat said soldiers were searching for President Joseph Momoh.

Britain's High Commission in Sierra Leone, a former British colony, said it believed the soldiers on the streets were rebels, the Foreign Office in London said. It reported gunfire overnight but said the city was calm today.

The Foreign Office quoted a message from the coup leaders, broadcast on a private radio station by Capt. Valentine Strasser-King, as saying:

"The patriotic officers and men of the Sierra Leone armed forces have overthrown the regime of President Momoh. We are now in full control of the situation and the former President Momoh is now in hiding."

Strasser-King said the soldiers would today name a provisional ruling council. He also ordered all government ministers and officials to surrender to police stations.

Soldiers said they have not been paid for three months, did not get enough food and were fed up with trying to fight an anti-insurgency war in the south with no support from corrupt senior officers remaining in Freetown. They said they did not even have enough ammunition.

The disgruntled soldiers drove yesterday from the southern frontier to Freetown, where they arrived firing machine guns into the air.

They took over State House, where Momoh has his office, but were quickly dislodged by other soldiers dispatched from military headquarters. The president had not yet arrived at his office.

At noon, as Momoh announced that loyal troops had the situation under control, heavily armed mutineers retook State House. The president has not been heard from since.

Momoh's government is accused of gross corruption and working with Lebanese businessmen to mine the country's diamonds and smuggle the gems out for profits paid into foreign bank accounts.

Momoh headed the armed forces when he succeeded Sierra Leone's first president, Siaka Stevens, in 1985. His initial popularity soon was eroded when he imposed an austerity program that brought huge price increases to the already impoverished nation.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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