Britain and US fear spread of Sierra Leone war

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The Independent Online

Britain's decision to send a senior army officer to serve with the United Nations in Sierra Leone - and its move to deploy a naval rapid reaction force off the war-torn West African country - represent the first evidence of a wide-ranging rethink of peace-keeping in the world's trouble-spots.

Britain's decision to send a senior army officer to serve with the United Nations in Sierra Leone - and its move to deploy a naval rapid reaction force off the war-torn West African country - represent the first evidence of a wide-ranging rethink of peace-keeping in the world's trouble-spots.

Six months after 500 United Nations peace-keepers were humiliatingly disarmed and taken hostage by rebels fighting for supremacy in Sierra Leone's diamond areas, Britain yesterday announced its first high-level appointment to the country's blue-helmet force (Unamsil) when Brigadier Alastair Duncan was named as chief of staff under a new commander, the Kenyan three-star general Daniel Ishmael Opande.

The British appointment and the removal of the former commander, Major-General Vijay Jetley, from India, coupled with a United States commitment to train and supply Nigerian peace-keepers, signals an acceptance by Security Council members of the need to commit real back-up and firepower to UN efforts to end conflicts.

According to military analysts, the development also signals a recognition, by Britain and the US in particular, that the Sierra Leone conflict threatens to spread throughout west Africa. It also shows that Britain, as the former colonial power in Sierra Leone and the best-equipped player in the region, has accepted the role of acting as permanent back-up for the UN.

The changes in Sierra Leone come two months after a UN report called on Britain and the US in particular to commit themselves to making peace-keeping work or see the world body's credibility disappear for ever.

The abduction of 500 troops in Sierra Leone came after a series of humiliations, including the UN's failure to prevent Bosnian Serbs overrunning the so-called "safe haven" of Srebrenica in 1995; its powerlessness in the face of the 1994 Rwandan genocide; and the negative image it gained in the US after 18 US Marines died in Somalia in 1993.

Brigadier Duncan, of the Prince of Wales's Own Regiment, has served in Bosnia and will answer to General Opande, who is Kenya's deputy chief-of-staff and has held senior positions in UN missions in Liberia, which adjoins Sierra Leone, and Namibia. General Opande's deputy will be a Nigerian who has yet to be named. He will replace Brigadier General Mohammed Garba, who has had public clashes with General Jetley.

According to a Western military analyst, the UN hopes that the high-level nature of the new team - and the fact that international peace-keepers will be backed by a British rapid reaction force including more than 500 Royal Marines - will encourage member countries to commit new troops. India, currently the mainstay of the 12,500-strong UN force with 3,000 soldiers, and Jordan, which has the third-largest contingent, have announced their intention to withdraw their men by the end of the year. It is understood that the Netherlands and Canada, which have pledged troops to peace-keeping on the Eritrea-Ethiopia border, have been sounded out about switching their commitment to Sierra Leone.

Britain currently has more than 400 troops in Sierra Leone, whose main role is to train and lead the country's army in its efforts to thwart rebels who control diamond-producing areas in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. In the 18 months in which Britain has played an overt role in backing President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's government, it has always insisted its troops are distinct from any UN force. But the latest developments signal an acceptance that they must work with the blue helmets.

Britain's increased commitment in Sierra Leone may cause controversy at home. After a paratrooper died during an operation in September to rescue British troops held hostage by a rebel militia, the Opposition called for a withdrawal from Sierra Leone.

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