Airlift begins amid death and chaos

UK under pressure to restore order in Sierra Leone as former colony descends into bloodshed
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British Paratroops began a large-scale evacuation of Sierra Leone last night as gunfights erupted in the capital, Freetown, and the country descended further into chaos and violence.

About 250 soldiers from the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment launched the evacuation, having flown into the country from Dakar, in nearby Senegal. A further 200 paratroopers left from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire to fly to Freetown. A total of 700 Paras are earmarked for Freetown.

The start of the operation - activated by the British high commissioner in Freetown - was announced yesterday afternoon by the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who told the Commons that his statement was one of "the more grave" ones he had to make.

In New York, the United Nations stepped up pressure on Britain to deploy its troops as part of an international rapid reaction force to support the current UN peace-keeping force. But as the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, repeated his request for military assistance from Sierra Leone's former colonial power last night, Britain insisted it would only provide logistical support - "everything from air transport to bootlaces" - and not peace-keeping troops.

Mr Cook said: "The situation in Freetown is tense. I spoke at midday to our high commissioner there, who reported that the police had been successful in arresting a number of rebel bands and seized arms which they had been about to distribute. We must not allow a few thousand rebels to prevent the end to violence."

Mr Cook said that all British nationals had been told to stay inside their homes and await further details of the evacuation from the high commission.

The Mammy Yoko hotel in Freetown was identified as the main collection point from which people were being taken to the local Lungi airport. From there they would be flown out in C130 Hercules planes, most probably to Dakar.

Last night a member of staff at the hotel, who gave his name as Joseph, said: "We are all very scared. There was fighting here earlier today. The hotel staff want to leave as well."

The climate of violence and tension in Freetown heightened sharply yesterday as four people were reported to have been killed and many others injured after shooting outside the home of the rebel commander Foday Sankoh. Mr Sankoh, leader of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) has been living in Freetown since he was brought into the government earlier this year as part of a UN-brokered peace plan to end an eight-year civil war. In recent weeks the ceasefire has counted for little. RUF troops have robbed and taken hostage UN peace-keepers. Last night 500 UN soldiers from an 8,000-strong force were missing, including a British officer.

The impotence of the peacekeepers - mainly Kenyan, Zambian, Jordanian and Indian troops - was highlighted when thousands of demonstrators descended upon Mr Sankoh's house. Witnesses said the troops, posted there to protect the house, were overwhelmed by the stone-throwing crowd, which was then fired upon by members of the RUF who had been standing behind the peace-keepers.

Witnesses said Freetown was being criss-crossed by helicopter gunships. It was not clear which contingent these belonged to but they could have been British gunships, flown in to help with the evacuation.

Mr Annan called again for a rapid reaction force to aid the peace-keepers in Sierra Leone. He also appealed to the leaders of neighbouring countries to prevent any deployment of RUF units from their territories into Sierra Leone. He authorised the evacuation from Freetown of 266 non-essential UN civilian staff.

At the UN headquarters in New York, a spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said Mr Annan was continuing to press for the deployment of an international rapid reaction force even though the idea has already been rebuffed by London and Paris. The UN said that it had received reports that units were preparing to move across the border from both Guinea and Liberia.

Last night, the Foreign Office set up an information hotline for concerned relatives in the UK: 020-7839 1010.