Freetown (AFP) - Sierra Leone vowed Monday to ensure the safety of its vice-president, who went into hiding after soldiers stormed his residence, as community leaders voiced fears over the stability of the west African nation.
Samuel Sam-Sumana claims he is in danger and has applied to the United States for asylum, after he was expelled from the governing party amid accusations that he orchestrated violent attacks on its officials.
Witnesses described how heavily-armed men entered his hilltop home in Freetown while he was away on Saturday and disarmed his security guards, leaving with bundles of files.
AFP was unable to reach Sam-Sumana and his current whereabouts were not clear.
"The news of the VP's life being under threat is blown out of proportion, to create the impression that the security of the state is being compromised," government spokesman Abdulai Bayratay told AFP.
"As a government, we want to assure the public that the security of the VP is assured and he has no reason to fear."
Information Minister Alpha Kanu added that Sam-Sumana's fears for his life were "ludicrous".
The action has been presented by the All People's Congress (APC) as part of a wider crackdown on "anti-party activities" which saw expulsions, reprimands and fines handed to several other key members.
- 'Strained relationship' -
But religious leaders have warned that the "strained relationship" between the Sam-Sumana and President Ernest Bai Koroma threatened the stability of a country still recovering from a decade of ruinous civil war.
"We are calling on the authorities of the nation to tread cautiously bearing in mind that the country cannot afford to go back to those dark days of our recent past and that stability and security of the state are of prime importance," the Council of Churches in Sierra Leone said on Friday.
The APC said earlier this month it had expelled Sam-Sumana for fomenting violence, deceit, making false statements amounting to fraud and threatening key party officials.
APC secretary-general Osman Yansaneh said a nine-man committee set up in November last year had concluded that Sam-Sumana was behind attacks on ministers within the party in his home district of Kono, in the east.
The party claims the vice-president has "over 100 groups of thugs to unleash violence against party people in the Kono district", Yansaneh said.
Yansaneh added that Sam-Sumana was found to have lied about being a Muslim and having a graduate degree from the United States.
The 52-year-old's expulsion came a few days after he had quarantined himself due to the death of one of his bodyguards from Ebola.
- 'Storm in a teacup' -
The vice-president appeared on a Freetown radio station to deny the charges, dismissing the affair as "a storm in a teacup" and vowing to address the accusations when he came out of quarantine.
He has appealed against his expulsion, refusing to resign as vice-president, and party officials told AFP his impeachment would require a trubunal lasting at least three months and a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
Solomon Berewa, the leader of Sierra Leone's opposition, told independent FM station Pro-Democracy Radio on Monday that Sam-Sumana had agreed to step down as vice-president last week before changing his mind.
"During discussions, the advice was that the best and quickest way to end the problem was for him to resign so that the situation would come to an end quickly and not go through the lengthy process of possible impeachment.
"The vice-president (said) he was ready to resign but wanted to be assured that his benefits due him would be met and that his good name which had been tarnished will be restored."
Berewa said the agreement was conveyed to Koroma, who gave his approval, before Sam-Sumana changed his mind.
The US State Department said on Sunday it was in touch with Sierra Leone authorities to try to resolve the standoff.
The affair has generated few headlines in Sierra Leone, where the media are focused on the country's ongoing battle with Ebola and the controversial release from jail of a civil war militia commander convicted of crimes against humanity.
Media in Sam-Sumana's home district said there was little support for the vice-president.
One local journalist told AFP that Sam-Sumana was "not much liked" and was seen as "a poor mixer and elitist".
Sierra Leone has registered more than 3,600 deaths in the 10 months since the Ebola outbreak spread from Guinea.