Royal Navy task force dispatched to Sierra Leone

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A Royal Navy task force will be diverted to Sierra Leone to provide "rapid reaction" back-up to United Nations troops, the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, announced yesterday.

A Royal Navy task force will be diverted to Sierra Leone to provide "rapid reaction" back-up to United Nations troops, the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, announced yesterday.

Mr Hoon told MPs that the group, which would include the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, the landing ship HMS Fearless, three Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels and a unit of Royal Marines, would remain only for a few weeks.

The deployment of the unit, which is currently on manoeuvres in the Mediterranean, would underline Britain's recent promise to provide more back-up to the troubled West African state, Mr Hoon said.

"As an early demonstration of the seriousness of that commitment, we are taking advantage of the completion of an exercise in the Mediterranean to divert an Amphibious Ready Group, comprising elements of our joint rapid-reaction forces, off to Sierra Leone for a limited period during November," he said.

The group would use the opportunity to practise its procedures and to conduct detailed reconnaissance, thus reducing the time needed to put troops into action should they be needed in the future. Britain already has about 400 troops in Sierra Leone, providing training to the country's own army and supporting a UN force.

However, the shadow Defence Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, warned that Britain could become increasingly embroiled in Sierra Leone's bloody civil war.

"Government policy earlier on hinged on an effective UN being in place with the right numbers to be able to keep the peace, yet that has proved ineffective," Mr Duncan Smith said. "Now, with the departure of the Indians and Jordanians, that force is beginning to look even more ineffective than when the British forces were deployed earlier this year to support them. That leaves us with a vacuum that may well suck us deeper into this."

The Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, Menzies Campbell, said the training mission was "essential for the long-term stability of Sierra Leone", but suggested the additional forces should be placed under the UN's command.Gareth Thomas, the Labour MP for Harrow West, welcomed the move but asked for an assurance that there would be no "mission creep" which could force British troops into combat.

Mr Hoon told him: "I can give you that assurance. The primary purpose of British forces going to Sierra Leone is to train the forces of the Government of Sierra Leone."

Earlier, the Armed Forces Minister, John Spellar, acknowledged there had been "an error of judgement" by a British officer, Major Alan Marshall, who was taken hostage in Sierra Leone earlier this year with other members of the Royal Irish Regiment. Major Marshall had not breached military law when he strayed into rebel territory and therefore there was no requirement for a court martial, Mr Spellar told the Labour MP for Thurrock, Andrew Mackinlay.

"There was an error of judgement, but on the other hand, subsequent to the capture, Major Marshall behaved superbly with great care and concern not only for his own men but also for the other Sierra Leonean hostages," Mr Spellar said.

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