Britain trains SLA elite for a battle it cannot afford

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The Independent Online

Saidu Amaru's British-issue uniform hangs loose on his thin and stooped frame and he has difficulty swinging up his British-supplied self-loading rifle. But when asked his age, he shakes his grey head and responds with a ready and toothless grin: "I was born in 1960, Sah!"

Saidu Amaru's British-issue uniform hangs loose on his thin and stooped frame and he has difficulty swinging up his British-supplied self-loading rifle. But when asked his age, he shakes his grey head and responds with a ready and toothless grin: "I was born in 1960, Sah!"

Private Amaru, or "Grandad" as he is affectionately known among the British military instructors, knows that if he admits to being older than 40 he will not be able to stay in the Sierra Leone Army (SLA) and will lose the income vital to his impoverished family. He is part of an "élite" 2,000-strong force being trained by the British for the decisive campaign against the rebels expected once the rainy season ends in two months.

The future of Sierra Leone, it is said, will be decided at the Benguema training camp, 20 miles from the capital, Freetown. The new Sierra Leone army being fashioned here out of the old SLA and the Kamajor and West Side Boys' militia will have to defeat the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) who are said to be rearming for an autumn offensive.

Following the successful United Nations operation to rescue its personnel being held by the rebels, Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie, in charge of one of the main rebel groups, contacted Sierra Leone's President, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, and asked for peace talks. However, the President's advisers, from both Britain and Sierra Leone, have warned against slackening the war preparations. They say that even if Mr Bockarie's faction call a ceasefire, it will not be binding on others in the RUF.

There is little reason to doubt the sincerity of the new SLA soldiers at Benguema. Many, including Private Amaru, have lost members of their family at the hands of the RUF, and the six-week crash course by British trainers means that the passing-out parade for the first batch today will be a well-conducted affair with the soldiers looking the part.

Lieutenant-Colonel Alasdair Wild, of the Royal Anglians, is justifiably proud of what his men have achieved. He said: "We did have some Sierra Leonian instructors turn up drunk and they were swiftly dealt with. Overall, the training has gone far better than one could expect. They are good soldiers. All they need is proper support, equipment and regular rations and payment."

But away from the efficiency of Benguema, these are precisely the problems besetting the Sierra Leone forces.

At the front line the situation had deteriorated from a month ago with government forces controlling fewer and fewer areas. The SLA, which has many soldiers who have not been paid, has abandoned weapons and positions. One of the positions left to the rebels is the key strategic town of Leunsar, just 40 miles from Freetown. This was supposed to have been taken six weeks ago.

Privately, senior British officers say the SLA is incapable of mounting a serious offensive until it receives major new supplies. Lt Suleyman Koroma, of the SLA, has just returned to the capital after fighting government forces in the front line. He said: "The soldiers at the front were supposed to get paid first as an incentive for them to remain there. But that hasn't happened.

"The situation is worse than before, we're short of supplies and we're falling back. It's all very well for the British to train these guys at Benguema, but what will happen when they get to the front? A six-week course is simply not enough. We really need British officers there, but I suppose that will never happen."

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