Blair flies in as new crisis looms for Sierra Leone

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair, on a whistlestop tour of West Africa, paid a flying visit to Sierra Leone yesterday to hail the role of British troops in helping end 10 years of war. The stopover was a personal vindication for Mr Blair, who was heavily criticised for sending an 800-strong force two years ago.

But as he touched down at Lungi airport near Freetown, the Prime Minister got a sharp reminder of the instability that still plagues the region. Across the border in neighbouring Liberia, President Charles Taylor declared a state of emergency in response to a rebel drive towards the capital, Monrovia. There are fears that the surge in fighting could spill over into Sierra Leone.

Mr Blair spent two hours at Lungi airport, where he was welcomed by President Tejan Kabbah and the UN force commander, Lt-Gen Daniel Opande. The British military intervention, which came at a crucial point in the war, won enormous popular support. A recent opinion poll found that a majority of Freetown residents credited Britain with bringing peace, and not the 17,400-strong UN force.

The 360-strong British contingent is focused on turning the notoriously unreliable Sierra Leone army into a disciplined fighting force. Some 9,000 soldiers have already been retrained, and now 2,300 former rebel fighters are being integrated into the army.

The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was notorious for its war atrocities. Its enemy, the pro-government Civil Defence Force (CDF) militia was also guilty of abuses. Now 1,000 men and women from both sides live together, wear the same uniform, and sometimes even break into song.

British Gurkhas are teaching the former guerrillas basic soldiering so that they can ensure stability over elections next May and beyond. Over the nine-week course the men and women learn basic skills such as drilling, shooting straight and signing a payslip.

Private Bernard Junisa, 27, a former RUF fighter, looted, mined diamonds and took drugs when he lived in the bush. Now he has a new pair of boots, has swapped his AK-47 for an ex-British army rifle and is paid £73 per month, well above the average wage.

"During the war we take what we need from the civilians, but now the government is providing," he said.

Britons have effective full control of the renamed Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF). The force commander is a British brigadier, and British officers hold several key positions. The fighting in Liberia may soon pose the first challenge for the newly trained army, which has deployed several thousand troops to guard Sierra Leone's porous eastern border. Britain plans to scale its presence down to 150 troops from July, but the pullout could be reversed if the Liberian situations deteriorates or if the May elections go badly.

Mr Blair left Sierra Leone for Senegal, the only country in the region never to have experienced a military coup.

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