Jesse's controversial peace mission

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Jesse Jackson was due to arrive in West Africa last night as President Bill Clinton's contribution to ending the war in Sierra Leone.

But the Rev Jackson's trip has already stirred great controversy in the region.

He made comments last week which seemed to back Foday Sankoh, the leader of the rebel Revolutionary United Front, which is the principal cause of the country's problems at the moment.

Rev Jackson, a widely respected figure in the civil rights movement, was appointed as Special Envoy of the President and Secretary of State for the Promotion of Democracy in Africa in October 1997, despite the fact that he had no background in African affairs. His interventions in the continent have yielded few concrete achievements and the US State Department is unsure of his role, policy analysts in Washington said. But none were keen to speak on the record: Rev Jackson is very influential in the black community and criticism is often interpreted as racism.

"The voice of the RUF in Sierra Leone is Foday Sankoh's voice, and his voice would be a very positive one," he told reporters in a conference call from Pittsburgh last week. "One of the things I would want to do early on is to seek not only the whereabouts of Foday Sankoh but to assure him of some port of safety if he can hear our voice," he said.

He even suggested that it might be appropriate to fund the RUF. "The support that he needs to turn the RUF into a political organization is deserved," he said. And he compared the RUF to the African National Congress of South Africa.

The statement brought shrieks of protest from nearly everyone involved in the crisis. "The one person in the whole wide world who sees RUF leader Foday Sankoh as deserving any iota of credibility is America's Jesse Jackson," wrote the Concord Times, a Sierra Leone newspaper. "My dear. Rev, do not preach to us. Do not advise us. You do not know our problem. You do not know Africa. You do not know Sierra Leone," wrote Dr. Ibrahim Abdullah, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, in the paper.

The most charitable interpretation which analysts and diplomats could put on the Rev Jackson's statements was that his views were shaped by Sierra Leone before the current outbreak of fighting. Mr Sankoh and the RUF were included in the Lome agreement, the last effort to end the fighting.

Rev Jackson apparently rethought his comments over the weekend, and gave an interview to Reuters on Monday in which he sought to shift his position. "I would like to clarify comments I made on Friday, which have apparently been misunderstood in Sierra Leone,'' he said in a statement read at the start of the interview. "First and foremost I'd like to make it clear that Foday Sankoh and the RUF alone are responsible for the current crisis in Sierra Leone. I condemn fully and unequivocally the violations of the Lome agreement by the RUF," he added.

As for the RUF and the ANC, "there is no equivalence between the two," he said.

The Rev Jackson may also have been trying to persuade Mr Sankoh and Charles Taylor, the Liberian President who is Mr Sankoh's main ally, of his genuine desire to broker a solution. Mr Taylor's intervention has been important in getting UN peacekeepers released by the RUF.

The Rev Jackson is virtually the sole contribution which America has made to the crisis in Sierra Leone. It flew one plane load of ammunition to the country, but offers to provide more airlift were turned down by the UN. The US armed forces would only provide help for a fee, and that fee was three times the commercial fare. The US had pushed for a Nigerian-led force to spearhead peacekeeping, but had balked at the idea of helping pay for it, and the idea now seems to be off the table.