Commanders lay on charm to heal tension

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The Independent Online

British and Nigerian commanders in Sierra Leone yesterday sought to temper claims of tensions between their soldiers after a report that their men had exchanged threats.

The dispute - in which a British soldier allegedly said "if you don't tell us what you are doing, you will get shot" and the Nigerian peace-keeper reportedly responded by threatening to shoot back - was yesterday being portrayed by both sides as a misunderstanding.

Nevertheless, the British conceded that they had to "tread carefully" because their high-profile hero status among the civilian population could bruise the egos of militiamen and Nigerians who have lost hundreds of comrades in years of battles against rebel movements. As a result, the British have launched "charm patrols" around the capital, Freetown.

Brigadier David Richards, the commander of the British joint task force, said: "There was a local disagreement. Commanders and officers have agreed on demarcation. Essentially, the Nigerians had not got the message at lower levels that we are securing the whole of Lungi (the airport) and the Nigerians are using the opportunity to regroup."

He had just left a meeting with Brigadier General Alex Garba, the United Nations' forces number two, who is Nigerian. It was not known whether the incident would be raised in Nigeria yesterday when the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, arrived there on a pre-planned visit.

Brig Gen Garba said: "The incident was nothing to be bothered about. It can be resolved amicably. I meet the British almost daily and these things happen."

But he hinted that British paratroopers may have been insensitive to the Nigerians' position - most members of its four battalions and one tank company had fought for up to eight years in Sierra Leone and neighbouring Liberia under the West African banner of Ecomog, before switching to the UN's blue hats and helmets in the last six months.

Brig Gen Garba said: "If someone is new to a place, you should announce what you are doing. You cannot deploy until you carry out liaison. If you do, you run into accidents. We are all professional soldiers, we are not a ragtag bunch."

On the ground, UN peace-keepers of different nationalities seem to get on well, though they make jokes about each other - some of them cruel or racist - and generally socialise with their own nationals.

Nigerian peace-keepers in Freetown yesterday insisted they were getting on well with the British and some were emphatic that, with the paras here, they felt there was finally international will to make a major stand against the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

There was evidence of this as Brig Richards said six UN battalions would move upcountry. "The UN will move forward, as opposed to sitting in static positions to fill in the vacuum behind the [advancing] Sierra Leone Army (SLA)," he said.

He confirmed that the SLA had requested ammunition from Britain. "We are considering this as they are key to our success," he said.

In Freetown, with many evacuees now returning, British troops had yesterday launched "charm patrols", aimed at intelligence gathering from the local population but also destined to reassure civilians and militiamen.