Mission Creep: How Paras find their role is changing

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The Americans call it Mission Creep. The British in Sierra Leone are calling it a helping hand. In this case they are assisting beleaguered peace-keepers, but unmistakably, the British military deployment is changing direction.

The collection point for foreign nationals on the outskirts of Freetown is now virtually empty. The only figure I saw scurry to the helicopter pad during the day was the wife of the British High Commissioner, leaving with reluctance and under heavy protection.

The helicopter traffic of RAF Chinooks continues, but now bringing more troops in and no longer taking civilians out. The British military here says it will help the UN in mission planning and technical advice. But that is extending to full operational and logistical assistance.

Undoubtedly the blue berets are in need of help. They are ill-equipped and under-resourced. They have been deployed too quickly and without adequate training or co-ordination.

As their officers struggle to cope with the complexity of this crisis, it is easy to dismiss this as another bungled UN operation. Many of their men are virtually confined to their checkpoints and compounds. Their unaggressive posture in a civil war of unimaginable brutality is easily mocked.

But that would be to over-simplify their plight and would do no justice to the considerable courage of many of the peace-keepers. The 5/8 Gurkha Rifles, an Indian Battalion, is serving with remarkable distinction in the isolated east of Sierra Leone. The Jordanian contingent is also performing in ways that is impressing the British officers here.

The UN force commander is the quiet, but heavily decorated Indian General, Vijay K Jetley. He won his medals as a commander on the Kashmir front, leading his men in ultra-high altitude, fighting against Pakistan. But now, General Jetley is under greater scrutiny than ever before. His military aides insist privately that he would adopt a far more aggressive stance with the rebels if they were not holding hostage 500 of his men.

The General, who insists the situation can be stabilised, is now trying to beat back the advance of the Revolutionary United Front, without jeopardising the lives of the captives.

It would be natural for the UN force to be a little resentful of the publicity that has surrounded the British paratroopers, with their Ministry of Defence press officers. In truth, the British have not yet left the small peninsula of Aberdeen or the airport, two of the safest areas in the country.

It is proving extremely difficult to know the location or intention of the rebels. Even the most basic questions remain unanswered. It is not clear if Freetown itself is under immediate threat and the location of the rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, remains a mystery.

Admittedly, intelligence officers are having a difficult time. The rebels have captured large amounts of UN uniforms and equipment. It is not easy to distinguish between a Nigerian peace-keeper and a rebel with a blue beret.

Whatever the humiliation being heaped on the UN in the field, the rebels are now being warned that they will never be tolerated. But such bold statements and categoric assurances only raise the question of further Mission Creep for the British. If rebel attacks on the outskirts of the capital mount, defending Freetown may well depend on British logistics and firepower, drawing the paratroopers into an enduring and brutal conflict.

Robert Moore is Diplomatic Correspondent with ITN