FREETOWN

Sierra Leone's former president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, widely credited with returning peace to the shattered west African nation after years of brutal civil war, died on Thursday aged 82.

Kabbah, who led the country during an 11-year conflict in which thousands had their limbs hacked off and 120,000 people were killed, was at home when he was pronounced dead, said John Benjamin, a family friend and former chairman of Kabbah's party.

The government of President Ernest Bai Koroma led tributes to Kabbah, describing him as "one of the pillars of democracy" in the country.

"He will go down in history as one of the leaders who stood tall in ensuring that he shook hands with people that were rejected by the majority of Sierra Leoneans during the war," government spokesman Abdulai Bayraytay told reporters.

"If we are now enjoying peace and stability in Sierra Leone, there is no way president Kabbah could be dissociated from that."

Bayraytay said Koroma would cut short a visit to Congo-Brazzaville to return to Freetown on Friday and pay his respects.

Kabbah was praised for launching a disarmament programme that led to the official end of the war in January 2002 with the help of a United Nations peacekeeping force and British military trainers.

He was also praised for maintaining stability until he stepped down in 2007, although his presidency was also marked by criticism of his failure to lift what was then the world's second poorest country out of poverty.

The cause of his death was not immediately clear although he had been suffering high blood pressure and had been ill for some time, local media reported, with friends and family making several recent visits to his bedside.

Born in February 1932 to a Muslim family in eastern Sierra Leone, Kabbah received a Christian education and married a Catholic, who died in 1998.

After studying human sciences in Britain, he joined the civil service in 1959.

After the SLPP was defeated in elections in 1968, Kabbah lost his job and all of his property was confiscated. He then left for Britain where he studied law and became a jurist.

In 1970, he joined the United Nations Development Programme and for the next 22 years worked in the United States, Lesotho, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

In 1992, a year after the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) launched a particularly bloody insurrection, Kabbah quit the UN and was named president of a national consultative council.

The body was set up by a military junta to pave the way for a return to multi-party politics and to draw up a new constitution.

'MAYOR OF FREETOWN'

In March 1996, Kabbah was elected Sierra Leone's president, becoming the first civilian head of state in more than 10 years.

But the elections, held at a time when several parts of the country were outside government control, earned him the dubious sobriquet of "mayor of Freetown".

In November 1996, Kabbah signed an accord with RUF leader Foday Sankoh, but the following May he was overthrown in a coup and fled to Conakry, capital of neighbouring Guinea, with the help of his Nigerian bodyguards.

Sierra Leone's new junta, led by commander Johnny Paul Koroma, allied itself with the RUF.

However, the then Nigerian head of state Sani Abacha, a personal friend of Kabbah's, vowed to bring him back to power.

On February 12, 1998, following fierce fighting and bombardments, the troops of the west African regional force ECOMOG, led by Nigeria, entered Freetown and chased out the junta, paving the way for Kabbah's return.

In January 1999, RUF rebels attacked Freetown once again, unleashing a renewed orgy of violence.

The following July, Kabbah and Sankoh signed a peace accord after protracted negotiations and agreed to share power.

At around the same time, UN peacekeepers were dispatched to Sierra Leone but in May 2000, the RUF reneged on its pledges by taking some 500 UN peacekeepers hostage.

When the situation worsened, Britain sent armed forces to its former colony to end the crisis.

Sankoh was imprisoned as Kabbah adopted a hard line on the RUF, launching a disarmament program that led to the official end of the war in January 2002.

Koroma declared seven days of mourning, with flags to fly at half mast across Sierra Leone, according to a statement from his office which described Kabbah's death as "a great loss to his family and the nation".