Freetown, Sierra Leone - Foday Sankoh, indicted leader of a 10-year rebel terror campaign in Sierra Leone that made a vicious trademark of hacking off the hands of countless helpless civilians, died in United Nations custody at a hospital in the West African nation's capital.

Sankoh was 65. He died late on Tuesday night in a UN-controlled section of a city hospital, said David Hecht, speaking for the UN-Sierra Leone war crimes court.

Sankoh's death of natural causes, "granted him a peaceful end that he denied to so many others" the war-crimes court's prosecutors office, headed by American David Crane, said in a statement.

Sankoh's victims took news of the imprisoned rebel leader's death quietly: "He has gone to the next world, to await his judgement day," said Edward Conth, the stump of his left arm, severed at the elbow, marking his own encounter with Sankoh's ruthless fighters.

Trained in the Cold War guerrilla camps of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Sankoh launched his insurgency in 1991, bent on winning control of Sierra Leone's government and diamond fields.

Sankoh's drugged, drunken fighters increasingly targeted civilians by the late 1990s, killing, raping, and kidnapping countless and burning homes. Prosecutors estimated the total death toll of the 10 years of carnage at 75 000.

Under Sankoh, rebels made a grisly trademark of mutilation by machete - severing the hands, feet, lips and ears even of newborn babies.

Captured in early 2000 after breaking repeated peace accords, Sankoh deteriorated rapidly in health and sanity in UN custody.

Decisive military intervention by the United Nations, neighboring Guinea, and Britain, Sierra Leone's former colonial ruler, crushed his rebel movement.

In June 2002, in one of his last court hearings in which he spoke, the rebel leader appeared disheveled, in matted white dreadlocks, and rambled.

"I'm a god," the handcuffed ex-warlord told court officials then. "I'm the inner god. I'm the leader of Sierra Leone."

Authorities announced in October 2002 he had suffered what they at first called a mild stroke.

The war-crimes court said last month it was pursuing a waiver on a UN travel ban against Sankoh so it could send him outside Sierra Leone for treatment.

The court's acting chief of defence, John Jones, said then that Sankoh was in a "catatonic, stuporous state."

News of his death was slow to break in Freetown, a city still bearing scars of the war. Sierra Leone's government refused immediate comment, noting only that Sankoh had been in UN custody.

Born on October 17, 1937 in diamond-rich area of northern Sierra Leone, Sankoh worked as a wedding photographer and served in Sierra Leone's army before moving to Libya.

Companions in the guerrilla training camps there included Charles Taylor, who went on to launch his own insurgency in neighbouring Liberia in 1989.

Taylor, now Liberia's president, is under his own indictment by the UN-Sierra Leone court for backing Sankoh's rebels.

Sankoh founded the Revolutionary United Front in 1988-89 in Libya. He took on almost mystical importance to his followers, many of them mere boys, who knew him only as "Pa".

Initially, smaller-scale UN interventions against Sankoh and his fighters failed to stop the killing. Sankoh signed repeated peace accords and power-sharing deals, only to break them with new attacks.

Sankoh was arrested on May 17, 2000, after his fighters gunned down more than a dozen people who had been rallying for peace in a demonstration outside his Freetown home.

Images of a half-naked Sankoh being manhandled then by jubilant captors provided one of the strongest symbols of what was to be the end of Sierra Leone's nightmare.

The world's largest UN deployment, a small but highly feared deployment by British troops, and cross-border helicopter gunship attacks on rebel bases by Guinea finally crushed the rebels, leaving Sankoh's followers suing for peace.

In the first post-war elections, in May 2002, amputees used the metal hooks on the stumps of their arms to shove their votes into ballot boxes - and proved the rebels to have virtually no popular support, with ex-rebel candidates failing to win a single office.

The United Nations and Sierra Leone launched the war-crimes court, with strong United States backing, to try those responsible for the gravest violations of humanitarian law. The court's purview ran back to November 30, 1996, when Sankoh's rebels signed a peace accord with the government that was supposed to end five years of war.

That peace deal was followed by a military coup and four years of some of the most ruthless attacks of the war.

Sierra Leone today is peaceful, with a camp in the capital providing job-training for some of the amputees.

Long-term prospects are threatened by the government's failure to make substantial reforms ahead of the upcoming scheduled withdrawal by UN forces, and by massive upheaval next door in Taylor's Liberia.

Sankoh had faced a 17-count war-crimes indictment, as well as separate charges in a Sierra Leone national court.

His condition had slowed proceedings, and Sankoh's last appearances in court were in a wheelchair, with Sankoh unable to respond to questions.

Prosecutors promised a post-mortem to determine his cause of death.

"His death will not stop prosecution, from leading evidence through other trials, of his involvement in the atrocious deeds that has left a legacy of horror in the minds and memories of those who survived," prosecutors said in their statement.

Survivors include his wife, Fatou Sankoh, and at least one daughter. - Sapa-AP