President pledges U.S. support for peacekeeping mission

President Bill Clinton promised U.S. support Thursday for the peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, as the White House disputed the notion his administration is doing too little, too late for an African crisis.

Clinton spoke by telephone Thursday with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan about getting more peacekeepers into Sierra Leone, national security spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

"The president continued to pledge that we would do whatever we could to support reinforcement of the mission," Crowley said. "I'm not aware of any new deployment announcements at this point. But we continue to work through how to best reinforce this force and how to sequence the arrival of these forces in the coming days and weeks."

The United States has a C-17 cargo plane in Jordan preparing to airlift equipment for a special forces unit to reinforce Jordanian troops in the region, Crowley said. Besides Jordan, Bangladesh and India have committed forces, Crowley said, and the United States has a logistics team working with Nigeria and other participating West African nations.

"We are engaged deeply with them, to try to help support them in any way we can," Crowley said. "But this kind of international response takes time to put together."

The United Nations wants to speed deployment of peacekeepers scheduled to arrive by mid-July, bringing the U.N. force up to its full strength of 11,100. Annan chastised the world's larger nations for declining to send their better-trained forces to help the peacekeepers, who have been overwhelmed in clashes with rebel soldiers.

During his 1998 tour of Africa, Clinton admitted that the United States, as well as other nations, waited too long to act after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He called for "global vigilance" on deadly conflicts, saying, "Never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence."

Crowley rejected the suggestion that the United States has reneged on that pledge in the case of Sierra Leone and other current African conflicts. He pointed out that Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United States, is on the continent now trying to halt fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Rwanda and Uganda.

"We haven't let anything slide," Crowley said. "Africa is very much on our radar scope. We are deeply engaged politically and we are willing to help militarily to help end this conflict."

The United States previously committed to flying 700 to 800 Bangladeshi soldiers to Sierra Leone in coming days, and Russia is to send 110 soldiers and four helicopters.

Canada has agreed to send a plane to ferry 1,800 Indian and Bangladeshi peacekeepers, and British troops are prepared to defend Freetown's airport so that reinforcements can arrive and foreign nationals can be evacuated.

Comments