Britain deploys special forces and the Gurkhas

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The Independent Online

The British force in Sierra Leone and the naval armada gathered offshore is the biggest deployment since the Kosovo conflict.

This array of firepower, government defence sources say, is more than adequate to tackle any combat duties. Britain has already used its four Chinook helicopters to deploy UN peace-keepers in the country.

Britain's formidable presence includes forces battle-hardened in Kosovo and East Timor. As well as paratroopers, there are special forces, marines and Gurkhas.

Offshore is the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious with seven Sea Harrier FA2 fighters, and six Harrier GR7s bombers used extensively over Serbia and Kosovo. The amphibious ready group has the new helicopter carrier, HMS Ocean, with four Sea King mark 7, two Lynx mark 4, and two Gazelle helicopters. Other ships carry 105mm artillery guns, Milan anti-tank missiles and heavy mortars and machine guns.

There are eight C130 Hercules aircraft at Lungi airport. British planners have identified six airfields in the country which could take the Hercules, thus making it comparatively easy to ferry troops around. The Gazelles are used for reconnaissance, and once they had picked up the columns of the Revolutionary United Front, the Harriers, the Sea Kings and the Lynx could pick them off, defence planners say.

British Army sources claim that with adequate support and supplies the UN peace-keeping force could become a viable entity. An Indian Battalion, operating in the east of the country, 5/8 Gurkha Rifles, is said to be well prepared and equipped with heavy artillery. The Jordanians are also said to "be able to look after themselves and civilians", but "there remains serious concerns about the Bangladeshi and Kenyan contingents".

The UN force commander, the Indian General Vijay K Jetley, was highly decorated for service in high-altitude warfare in Kashmir. But his hands have been tied, say sources, by the UN soldiers held hostage, the lack of clear directions from UN headquarters and the quality of the forces under him.