A battalion of 700 Paratroops was scrambled to West Africa last night to oversee a possible evacuation of British residents from Sierra Leone as the country slipped deeper into panic and chaos.
The Parachute Regiment's 1st Battalion flew from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire to Dakar, Senegal, and will continue on to the former British colony later today. The Foreign Office said it was evacuating all non-essential support staff and their dependants from the country's High Commission, and warned Britons to consider leaving unless they have essential business. The US has taken similar measures.
The flurry of action comes against a backdrop of increasing tension in Sierra Leone as rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) continued to march on the capital, Freetown. In the past week they have kidnapped about 500 United Nations peace-keeping soldiers, among them a British military adviser.
A British defence source said: "It was felt that if we have to evacuate the 400 or so residents then our soldiers had better be there." But, he added: "They do not intend to be shooting their way out." The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said: "I have been following the situation with deep anxiety ... we are advising those British nationals who do not have essential reasons for remaining to leave."
Mr Cook said that he had contacted the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, to reaffirm Britain's continued support for the UN's peacekeeping efforts. In New York the UN Security Council was called into emergency consultations to be briefed on events in Sierra Leone.