RN carrier off Freetown

The aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious arrived off Sierra Leone yesterday to bolster Britain's presence in the ravaged west African country, but the Government insisted that the 1,500 British servicemen and six ships being sent there would not become embroiled in the civil war.

Although officially only present to help evacuate foreigners and secure the airport and the capital, Freetown, the troops stand ready to play a "defensive role" if tensions turn to full-scale violence.

The 600 Royal Marines on the landing ship HMS Ocean join 900 British soldiers already in Sierra Leone. "Their instructions will be to stay and wait and be deployed as and when required," a Ministry of Defence spokesman said. "They have not been tasked. They are not preparing to go ashore. But that is always a possibility. It is important we have the manpower to provide flexible and rapid response as necessary."

Boosted by the British presence, forces loyal to Sierra Leone's government mounted a successful counter-attack against the rebels yesterday. An independent news agency connected to Catholic missionaries reported that the loyalist forces were consolidating their positions at Masiaka, 46 miles from the capital.

The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, personally thanked the Prime Minister yesterday for speedily deploying troops in Sierra Leone. In a letter to Tony Blair, he said they were a "robust and reassuring presence".

Yesterday the missing rebel leader Foday Sankoh, whose Revolutionary United Front is holding some 500 peacekeepers hostage, was accused of planning to stage a violent coup. Sierra Leone's attorney-general, Solomon Berewa, said Mr Sankoh, who has been missing since a shootout at his Freetown home on Monday, had been planning to make his move the following day.

While General Sir Charles Guthrie, Chief of Defence Staff, was due to arrive today, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, insisted British forces will not be drawn into a war. "Our troops are not going to become combat troops with the UN," said Mr Cook. But the MoD has confirmed they will defend themselves if attacked.

The Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, Menzies Campbell ,said yesterday: "Circumstances on the ground may change with the control of the British forces. Supposing a company of Zambians or Kenyans gets cut off and needs assistance and the commanding officer asks the UN for help. A senior UN officer may well say: 'You are the nearest - for God's sake go and help or we may lose 150 men'."

The MoD said the troops would be providing logistical and communications support for the UN forces fighting rebels. "We will leave once we feel the UN are in a position to continue with their own resources."

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