Paras backed by witchcraft warriors

They believe in magic and drugs, but Sierra Leone's Civil Defence Force could be a useful ally for Britain
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The Royal Marines' arrival this week off Sierra Leone will bolster Britain's force in the small West African country to 1,500 men and bring about one of the most unlikely military marriages in history. It will see the likes of First Officer "Warface", who drives a bright red stolen car, reporting, albeit at a distance, to Brigadier David Richards, a sophisticated tactician at the head of Britain's blindingly efficient quick response force.

"Warface" is a Kamajor - a tribal fighter who believes that any bullet shot in his direction will turn to water. He takes drugs and his "uniform" consists of lucky charms pinned to a headdress. But according to Brig Richards, the Kamajors, known more officially as the Civil Defence Force, are "brilliant fighters".

They and the partly British-trained Sierra Leone Army (SLA), along with the police and soldiers loyal to the former coup leader, Johnny-Paul Koroma, make a motley crew with diverging agendas.

But Britain's best military brains are entrusting them with what is emerging as a masterplan to crush the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Under the plan, United Nations peacekeepers will bring up the rear, securing positions won by the ragtag but highly motivated pro-government troops.

"Warface", standing in the forecourt of the smashed-up, one-star, Brookfields Hotel - the Kamajor HQ and the best place to buy drugs in Freetown - thinks it's great. But he would like some ammunition. Brig Richards, sipping a 7-Up by the pool of the Mamy Yoko Hotel, says guardedly: "That would be a political decision for London."

Westminster has no idea of Brig Richards' sneaking admiration for the likes of "Warface". Indeed, the British forces' impressive game plan for saving Sierra Leone may yet be vetoed in Westminster.

Yet in Freetown nothing could be clearer than Britain's commitment, once and for all, to ensure that the elected president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, stays in power.

Major Andy Charlton, who commands 138 paratroopers in the shell of the formerly five-star Bintumani Hotel and Conference Centre on Aberdeen Hill, arrived with orders to secure what was always a half-hearted evacuation of civilians from Freetown. That is still, officially, his men's role, because it justifies their presence here in the eyes of the British public. But everyone knows fewer than 400 civilians are left - out of a stated 2,000 - and most are now coming back, even the usually cautious aid workers.

With such an impressive British military presence on the ground, and UN troops coming in at a fast rate, civilians in Freetown have rarely felt so safe.

Maj Charlton's men from the Second Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, have now integrated part of Freetown's police force. They can be seen everywhere, jointly patrolling the city in "Wimecs" - open Land Rovers with 50-calibre machine guns mounted on tripods at the back.

"When we arrived we disarmed everybody and met with 99 per cent co-operation," said the major. "Now we have given the arms back and are working with the police." His force is top-notch, a 15-strong quick reaction force, mortar crew, controllers, a field surgery team, an intelligence cell and signallers.

It is the same picture, but on a bigger scale, at Lungi airport, which Britain has been charged with securing as planeloads of equipment and more UN troops are ferried in. British Chinooks are flying UN troops from Lungi to the interior. The formerly grand Bintumani Hotel, which has not had electricity nor running water since it was bombed at the start of the civil war in 1990, is a grotty place. The splendid view over Sierra Leone's pristine beaches - said to be some of the best in Africa - does not even impress Maj Charlton.

"The biggest problem is the heat and the mosquitoes," he said, as the sea breeze swept a pungent odour into his windowless room from the soldiers' latrines. "There are health and safety issues."

But he confirms the widely held view that the paras are gagging for action. "They love this," said Maj Charlton, who sleeps on a strip of corrugated cardboard. "They feel they are doing what they were trained for. These soldiers will do everything they are asked to do."

"Warface" has never heard of "health and safety issues" - besides, being invincible, he has nothing to fear. "We are the best men to defend our country. Tell the British to give us bullets and we will finish the job," he said as a gang of his men gathered in the Brookfields yard. "We only have this transport," he added, pointing to his red pick-up with a smashed windscreen, stolen last Monday from the house of the RUF leader Foday Sankoh.

The Kamajors' idea of a patrol is to have a few beers, grab their rifles and pile into the pick-up for a drive around Freetown. Each initiated Kamajor is adorned with leather or fabric pouches containing secret messages, either from Mohammed or God. "We have mystical powers," said one, "Rambo", pulling out a huge kitchen knife and offering to eat it.

Told that this really was not necessary, he expounded on the Kamajor credo. "Kamajors stands for Killing Armed Men After Joining Obnoxious Rebels - Seriously," he said to a loud cheer which might have been accompanied by shots into the air if Britain had not been so recalcitrant about providing ammunition.

"The Brits will come round to our way of seeing things eventually, because we know the bush," said "Warface", bidding goodbye.

He refused to shake hands with me because "it will do bad things to you and put evil spirits which are on the outside of my skin into your body".