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Sierra Leone could free rebels

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- Jailed members of the Revolutionary United Front could be released, the Sierra Leone government says.

The RUF has repeatedly demanded the release of its members, including its leader Foday Sankoh.

Rebels say that by respecting a ceasefire, freeing child soldiers and starting to disarm they have shown commitment to ending a decade-long war.

"The government is going through the list of RUF detainees looking at those that the government can safely release," Justice Minister Solomon Berewa told Reuters.

"Those who may have been said to have committed serious crimes will not be released automatically ... I believe that very soon the government will be in a position to make a statement on some of them," he said, but gave no more details.

The rebels have been accused of committing atrocities against civilians, such as hacking limbs off women and children.

Sankoh, whose whereabouts are kept secret, and many other rebels were imprisoned in May 2000 when the RUF reneged a 1999 peace deal and took hundreds of U.N. peacekeeepers hostage.

The rebels and government signed a ceasefire last November, and the RUF and militiamen from the government's Civil Defence Forces (CDF) began disarming last month.

The ceasefire has also allowed the United Nations, which has its biggest peacekeeping operation in Sierra Leone, to deploy in rebel-held areas.

Berewa, who has led the government delegation in several rounds of talks with the rebels, said there would be "no turning back" on the peace process.

"Sierra Leone is now very near to the end of its war and I am sure that peace is now in sight," he said.

The U.N. Security Council last year decided to set up a tribunal in the capital Freetown that would prosecute those responsible for atrocities during the war.

However, the project has been delayed due to lack of funds.

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