British forces in Sierra Leone carried out the first wave of emergency evacuations yesterday, amid renewed fighting and the increasing danger that they will be drawn into the escalating civil war.
The official line in London continued to be that the only role for the formidable fighting force now gathering in the West African state was to extract the remaining civilians.
However, the UN peace-keeping force in the West African state is seemingly unable to rescue 500 of its troops who are surrounded by the rebels, let alone control the growing lawlessness and violence. In this climate, the Government conceded that the British soldiers and marines will have to stay there at least until further UN reinforcement arrived. The peace-keepers, drawn mainly from Kenya, India and Nigeria were sent in as a policing force and are not equipped for serious combat.
Any attempt to extract the "missing" UN troops, including a British officer, will need the help of the British forces. The UN peace-keeping forces in Sierra Leone are lightly armed, and in no state of combat readiness to mount a rescue.
Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, continued his insistence that British forces would not be involved in fighting. "We are not going to commit British troops as combat troops as part of the UN force," he said. But, "by their very presence, they also do secure the airport and make a real contribution to the UN force which is still building up and now has a secure bridgehead to do so."
The operation was proceeding "smoothly", he said, but there was no timetable for its completion and the position of British troops was being evaluated "day-to-day".
But Francis Maude, the Tory shadow Foreign Secretary, warned of the danger of them being sucked into the conflict, saying that the Government had failed to make clear their strategic aims or any time-scale for the operation. "It is clear only that Britain's role is unclear," he said in a letter to the Foreign Secretary. "You have committed the UK to something that is more than an evacuation but less than a full-scale military intervention.
"As a consequence, we risk being sucked into Sierra Leone's civil war. This is dangerous for our troops. They need clarity."
The Ministry of Defence could not rule out the possibility that they would become involved in action in the unfolding, rapidly changing and uncertain situation on the ground.
Mr Cook held urgent talks yesterday afternoon with the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, who has repeatedly called for military assistance from Britain, the former colonial power in Sierra Leone.
But there are grave doubts over the International community's ability to guarantee the future security of the country. Troops loyal to the government, many of them poorly trained and ill-disciplined are outnumbered by rebel forces - and the UN mission is widely held to have failed.
Britain faces further intense pressure to act as the only permanent member of the UN security council with a sizeable force at the scene. The French government announced yesterday that it is considering sending troops to add to the British contingent, however, there were no clear indication of its size and strength.
The British force is battle hardened in recent conflicts in Kosovo and East Timor. As well as paratroops, it includes special forces, marines and Gurkhas.
Offshore support comes from a fleet including the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious with Harrier jets, and the amphibious ready group, with a new helicopter carrier from which Chinook, Lynx and Sea King helicopters can operate. Other ships carry 105mm artillery guns, Milan anti-tank missiles, heavy mortars and machine guns.
Around 550 Britons, plus 250 citizens from other EU countries and 50 from the Commonwealth were understood to be in Sierra Leone when the latest violence broke out, but the Foreign Office said that some may have left under their own steam after warnings issued on the BBC World Service. Britain was now pressing those countries - such as Jordan and India - which have committed personnel to the UN peace-keeping force to speed their deployment. That force was initially planned to reach its full strength of 11,100 in July.Reuse content