Sierra Leone's government and the rebel movement that has tried for eight years to topple it signed a peace accord to end a civil war best known for brutal mutilations of civilians.

Sierra Leoneans, exhausted by the war, voiced hope, but limited confidence, that the pact might end the fighting. Yet many were disturbed by the major role in government that the pact affords the Revolutionary United Front, an ill-disciplined rebel force whose fighters, including many armed children, have torched villages and amputated the hands, feet or ears of thousands of civilians.

Sierra Leonean President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and rebel leader Foday Sankoh signed the agreement in Lome, Togo, under encouragement and pressure from five West African presidents. The agreement gives the rebels four cabinet ministries and a hazily defined amnesty for crimes committed during the war. It lifts a death sentence against Sankoh, who was convicted last year of treason for backing a coup that overthrew Kabbah in 1997.

The United Nations said it will not recognize the amnesty granted to the rebels under the accord, the Associated Press reported. While the United Nations supports the peace agreement and backs suggestions for a truth commission for those who committed atrocities, it believes that people responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and other serious violations cannot be protected from prosecution, U.N. officials said.

A peace deal in 1996 collapsed within months and Sierra Leoneans and foreign analysts said today's accord faces even greater obstacles.

The agreement provides for the disarmament of rebels under the supervision of peacekeeping forces, but rebel spokesmen repeatedly have said they would not disarm in the presence of the peacekeeping contingent currently in Sierra Leone, a Nigerian-led West African force called ECOMOG. ECOMOG and Nigeria have been the main military backers of Kabbah's government against the rebels.

Residents of Freetown voiced bitterness, resignation and diluted hope, saying the country had no choice but to surrender a share of power to the rebels, whose control over the diamond fields of eastern Sierra Leone has enabled them to buy weapons and mercenaries from abroad. "I would not choose to have these [rebels] in any government," said Kemoh Turay, one of thousands of war refugees living at the National Stadium in the capital. "But if it brings us a real peace, I will accept it."

Unlike in 1996, there was little celebration at today's news of a peace deal. When news of the accord swept up Lightfoot Boston Street, between war-charred ruins of government buildings, people shouted and, for a moment, danced and sang with joy. But the celebration passed within seconds, and people settled into knots at street corners and doorways, listening to radios and fretting over details of the accord.

Aimed at ending a war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and forced 2.5 million people to leave their homes, today's deal was an agreement of the desperate and exhausted. Less than a year ago, Kabbah's government was vowing to win a military victory over the insurgency. But the rebels--reinforced by training, weapons and mercenaries provided largely via neighboring Liberia--seized much of the country and its capital in an efficient, brutal offensive. ECOMOG launched a counteroffensive this year that left the war in a stalemate, with the rebels free to move in much of the countryside, where they survived by raiding village food stocks, often burning homes and conducting mass amputations.

Sankoh, a former army corporal who had been cashiered and jailed for allegedly plotting a coup, launched the rebellion in 1991 with help from Charles Taylor, a Liberian rebel leader who is now that country's president. Sankoh preached a volatile mix of Christianity, pan-Africanism and class struggle, building a following among poor, rural youths, and his movement often abducted children from villages as soldiers.

Kabbah, elected in 1996 to replace a military government, quickly negotiated an agreement with Sankoh, but it collapsed as each side accused the other of cease-fire violations. The war continued until 1997, when noncommissioned army officers expelled Kabbah in a coup and invited Sankoh's rebels to join them in power.

For eight months, the coalition of the army and the Revolutionary United Front terrorized Freetown. Gangs of young fighters--styled as "security units"--staged joyrides through the streets in stolen four-wheel-drive vehicles and looted homes in a practice they called "Operation Pay Yourself."

Last year, ECOMOG--with help from a British mercenary firm, Sandline--counterattacked, shoving the rebels deep into the bush and reinstalling Kabbah in power. With that, the rebels pushed the war into a particularly brutal phase. In the past year, they have destroyed numerous villages, often rounding up residents to conduct mass amputations in what they said was retribution for popular resistance to their rule.

The United States and other governments condemned the rebels. The U.S. ambassador at large for war-crimes issues, David Scheffer, said in February that the rebels were "subject to investigation and prosecution" for atrocities.

The most controversial element of today's deal is an impression that the rebels have been rewarded for their brutalization of the country. "They only want power, but this is not the way to get power," said Turay.

But other Sierra Leoneans were more resigned. "We must swallow it," said Ousman Bangura, 56, a refugee who said the rebels had burned his stationery shop and his home, and abducted his 13-year-old son. "We are not a people who have a choice. We choose to live instead of to die, so we will accept this peace, if only the rebels will keep it."

Sierra Leone at a Glance

The United Nations ranks Sierra Leone last among 174 nations in terms of human development. It has the lowest life expectancy, one of the highest poverty rates and one of the lowest literacy rates.

Country: about twice the size of Maryland

Population: 4.5 million; projected population in 2025: 8.2 million.

Religion: 60 percent traditional beliefs, 30 percent Muslim, 10 percent Christian

Life expectancy: 34.7 years

Standard of living:

Annual per person income: $625

Radios: 251 per 1,000 people

Televisions: 20 per 1,000

Adult literacy: 31 percent

Newspapers: 4 copies per 1,000

Cars: 7 per 1,000

History

Sierra Leone won independence from Britain in 1961; it has had a history of coups since then.

Siaka Stevens, who made the country a one-party state in 1978, quit in 1985 at age 80 and chose former army chief Joseph Momoh as successor. But soldiers ousted Momoh in 1992.

Rebel leader Foday Sankoh and his Revolutionary United Front took up arms in 1991. Tens of thousands of people have died in the fighting.

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah took office in March 1996 after winning multi-party elections, ending four years of army rule.

Disgruntled soldiers toppled Kabbah in May 1997. The Nigerian-led intervention force, ECOMOG, restored him to power in March 1998.

Rebels, who came close to capturing Freetown in January, have been accused by victims and witnesses of hacking off hands and arms of civilians in a reign of terror.

SOURCES: Reuters, United Nations, World Bank

CAPTION: Rebel leader Foday Sankoh, left, and Sierra Leone President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah signed the deal under pressure from five West African presidents.

CAPTION: Togo President Gnassingbe Eyadema, left, and Liberian leader Charles Taylor, greet each other as officials gather in Lome for accord signing.