Peace mission reopens mercenary debate

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The debacle surrounding the UN peace-keeping mission in Sierra Leone has reopened the controversy over the role of mercenary outfits, or "private military companies", in suppressing rebels in countries wracked by civil war.

Lt Col Tim Spicer, the head of Sandline, the British company at the centre of the "arms-to-Africa" scandal of 1998, has attacked Tony Blair's Government this week, saying that its earlier meddling in Sierra Leone resulted in the rebel atrocities of the last year.

"Thousands of lives could have been saved and thousands of children would not have been maimed if the Blair Government had not acted in such an unseemly rush to get a peace accord at all costs," he said. Sandline International and South Africa's Executive Outcomes (EO) have made incursions in the past into Sierra Leone on behalf of President Ahmad Kabbah's government. Senior figures from these companies say the use of private military companies (PMCs) could have prevented the current crisis in Sierra Leone.

A former senior officer of an EO force that routed the rebels in 1995, said: "Foday Sankoh's rebel group, the RUF, are not solders. They are criminals and should be treated as such. They are no match for highly trained, properly equipped soldiers whose commander has a clear mandate.

"I think we have a difference in approach to the UN...You cannot sign an accord with rebels and send unarmed UN troops into rebel strongholds. This is why 500 soldiers were taken hostage," he said.

Col Spicer agrees. "It's the standard problem for the UN. They have no standing military structure, no commonality of equipment, no common training or language. All the fabric that makes up a professional fighting force is missing."

The British author and journalist William Shawcross has argued recently that if Western countries were reluctant to contribute troops to defeat the RUF, they should employ mercenaries to do the job for them.

The South African journalist Simon Barber, writing in Business Day magazine, called for EO to be allowed back into Sierra Leone. The government there was forced to dispense with EO's services in 1997 in the face of international pressure. Mr Barber writes: "At least Sierra Leone's mineral wealth might have been saved and tens of thousands, mostly women and children from death, amputation, rape, Aids and sexual enslavement."

But last week, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, told Parliament that "in the present situation, mercenaries would be nothing but a menace." Sandline rejects the term mercenary, saying it prefers to take up missions on behalf democratically elected governments.

Lt Col Tim Spicer blamed Britain's insistence that Foday Sankoh be pardoned from a death sentence and given a role in government for the collapse of the peace accord. "It was like giving the fox the keys to the chicken coop," Col Spicer said. "It was extraordinary."