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5/28/97 Missionaries in coup sense peace of God

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (BP)–Two rockets exploded just feet from the walls of their compound. A stray bullet pierced a lamp shade and lodged in a bedroom wall. But missionaries in besieged Freetown, Sierra Leone, said they were feeling the peace and presence of God during a military coup in late May.
“While there has been fighting all around us, we have not felt any specific danger,” said Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board missionary Ron Hill.

Still, with Nigerian gunboats landing the morning of May 28, Hill and his wife, Sharon, were beginning to consider whether to evacuate. “We’re seeking God’s guidance as to our next step,” he said.
The Hills, of Albuquerque, N.M., were jolted awake about 6 a.m. May 25 by the chatter of machine guns and blasts from heavy artillery as conspirators launched the coup in the capital city.
Nigerian troops loyal to Sierra Leone’s first democratically elected president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, withdrew to about 12 miles outside the city after military leaders staging the coup drove Kabbah out May 25. It was unclear whether the Nigerian gunboats arriving May 28 intended to retaliate against the coup.
“People are tense as to what will transpire between Nigerian troops and the new military dictator’s troops,” Hill said.
It appeared a showdown was imminent, as non-uniformed men streamed into Freetown from the countryside asking for directions to military barracks, according to reports.
Hill and two Sierra Leone Baptist leaders were on their way to the Jui Bible College 14 miles outside Freetown the morning of May 28 to discuss the situation with mission workers Felix and Dene Greer. The Greers, from Jackson, Miss., have been teaching at Jui until they could get into Liberia, probably in December. Last spring, they fled Liberia in a daring evacuation with U.S. Embassy officers as that country’s coalition government splintered.

Sierra Leone’s most recent coup — the nation’s third in five years — began May 25 when soldiers raided a Freetown prison and released former conspirators and others. Looting, arson and fierce fighting followed. Soldiers seized the legislature, torched the national treasury building and drove President Kabbah and other government leaders out of the country.
Johnny Paul Koroma, identified as the coup leader, had been jailed with eight co-defendants last September. They were accused of conspiring to overthrow President Kabbah, whose election in February 1996 had ended five years of military rule in Sierra Leone.
Koroma said May 26 he seized power because Kabbah’s government had failed to keep agreements negotiated with rebels last November to end five years of civil war. He announced by radio he would share power with the leader of the rebels who launched the civil war and said the military regretted the looting and was working to prevent further violence in the country.
The American Embassy said the 400 Americans in Freetown were in no danger, but a U.S. ship was sent to wait out the crisis about 20 miles off the Freetown shore.
The embassy said it had no plans to evacuate its staff and suggested missionaries stay indoors and wait for further developments. The Hills were taking people into the Foreign Mission Board compound where they are living — which includes housing for three missionary units, two of which are unassigned.

At one point, troops entered the compound and sought to steal two vehicles. But a soldier carrying a pocket New Testament persuaded his colleagues not to; instead, they commandeered two vehicles next door.

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  • Marty Croll