The Government should guarantee that the mandate of British troops in Sierra Leone will not be extended to a peace-keeping mission, the Tories said yesterday.
Francis Maude, the shadow Foreign Secretary, told the Commons the troops should only have the mandate "to get the British nationals out".
He added: "Given the evidence that Britain's armed forces are already stretched dangerously thin, will you make it categorically clear that the British contingent in Sierra Leone has one mandate, and one mandate only, to get the British nationals out?"
The large British force (700 men of the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, already arriving in the ravaged country and securing the airport) being readied for the evacuation must not be part of a "wider military commitment to shore up a UN operation that appears to be close to collapse", Mr Maude insisted. "There would be no public support, I believe, for allowing British forces to be sucked into a civil war in Sierra Leone."
The operation should be time-limited to ensure the mission did not continue and grow in scope, he said.
Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, told MPs that the British High Commission had activated an evacuation plan for British, Commonwealth and European Union nationals.
In an emergency statement, he said British forces would ensure the security of the international Sierra Leone airport to facilitate an evacuation and to allow UN forces to build up. But Mr Cook stressed that all the military measures had been taken, keeping in mind the security of those Britons left in Sierra Leone.
The UN peace-keeping force was 3,000 below its mandated strength and Mr Cook said he was urging the nations involved to bring in the additional troops.
He said Britain had offered the UN further logistical support during a conversation with the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, because the UN was short of some equipment
"I pressed upon him that one of the immediate lessons of the last few days is that nations contributing forces to the UN must also contribute the equipment necessary to fulfil their mandate," Mr Cook added.
The Foreign Secretary told MPs that Britain would continue to take the lead in restoring the peace process, and added: "We must not allow a few thousand rebels to prevent the end to violence."
The position in Sierra Leone was "tense" and all British residents were being advised to stay indoors, while the High Commission was trying to contact them through the local warden network to instruct them on what to do, he said.