Paratroops prepared to use lethal force in rescue of foreign nationals

The decision to evacuate about 1,000 British and other foreign nationals from Sierra Leone was taken yesterday by the high commissioner, Alan Jones, once it became clear that the Revolutionary United Front, led by Foday Sankoh, was endangering the stability of the capital, Freetown.

The first section of "One Para" - which will eventually total a force of 700 men lightly armed with mortars - took over the airport at Lungi to supervise the evacuation. The British forces were given "robust" rules of engagement. "They can use lethal force in the protection of people," said one senior defence source. Early yesterday, four heavy Chinook helicopters and five large C130 aircraft arrived at Lungi. The Chinooks had flown from France and Britain, stopping at Gibraltar and Tenerife on the way.

The aircraft carrier HMSIllustrious was heading for the area after leaving a Nato exercise off Portugal, and should arrive by the end of the week. An amphibious group, including the helicopter platform vesselOcean, with a 550-strong force of Marines - 42 Commando - was off Gibraltar and due to reinforce the Parachute battalion by the end of the week.

Yesterday morning, the high commissionerbegan to implement a contingency "warden" plan under which British nationals in Sierra Leonewill go to appointed places where they can be taken out by helicopter.

The RUF forces had swept down from the north along the rough roads, overrunning UN peace-keeping forces. Yesterday they were reported to have halted about 30 miles outside Freetown. The MoD estimates that there are up to 45,000 RUF troops, with supporters joining them all the time as they sweep through the countryside.

British defence chiefs are worried by the unpredictability of the factions threatening Freetown and the complexities on the ground. "It is an extremely dangerous situation," said an MoD official.

Ministers had been told that the RUF was poorly armed and badly equipped. "There is a mixture - a lot of them are in flip-flops but they have been taking over UN transport," said a defence source. Defence chiefs have no clear objectives once the evacuation is complete. "The situation is pretty fluid at the moment," said one MoD source.

Analysts believe the RUF seized the opportunity to move on Freetown because of the vacuum caused by delays in deploying UN forces supposed to implement the peace agreement that ended the civil war last July. They struck before the "moribund" Sierra Leone army could be trained by British armed forces. Many UN units - in a peace-keeping role - surrendered when challenged; others fought, but were overrun.

A group of about 500 UN troops, including a British major, was taken. They are being held in Kailahun, near the border with Liberia. "We had news of him [the British officer] a day ago. He is fine," said the MoD.

The Government has ruled out a combat role for British forces, and they will not be joining the UN force.

Hundreds of British citizens have been pouring into one ofFreetown's two main hotels, clutching passports and packed suitcases and waiting for theBritish military force to evacuate them.

A Sierra Leonean woman, whose nine-year-old daughter is a British citizen, waited with the girl in the hotel courtyard. She said rebels had killed her husband and four of their children last year, forcing them into their home and then setting it on fire. "I don't want to lose her too," she said, holding her daughter's shoulder as she waited to send the girl away to safety.

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