UK sends new Sierra Leone force

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The Independent Online

Britain is preparing to send a new task force to Sierra Leone to shore up the United Nations peace-keeping force.

Britain is preparing to send a new task force to Sierra Leone to shore up the United Nations peace-keeping force.

The helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, carrying 500 troops from 42 Royal Marine Commando, is expected to be ordered back to West Africa tomorrow by Geoff Hoon, Secretary of State for Defence. HMS Ocean will be accompanied by two other warships and support vessels. The task-force is on exercise in the Mediterranean and could reach Sierra Leone in days.

Defence sources insist the troops will not be involved in fighting and will remain offshore, even though the UN is pressing Britain to join the campaign against RUF rebels. The UN mission in Sierra Leone is foundering after Jordan and India announced they were pulling out their troops.

The British task-force will be there only to provide reassurance but the Opposition spokesman on defence, Iain Duncan Smith, warned that the Government was in danger of "dragging our military deeper and deeper into the mess and muddle of Sierra Leone".

He said: "Again our servicemen and women are paying the price of Robin Cook's failed foreign policy in Sierra Leone.

"His policies in Sierra Leone change from day to day but our armed forces' involvement increases week to week. He is using our servicemen and women to bail him out of this mess. He must immediately come clean on what private deals he has done with the United Nations and Sierra Leone over our military commitment to the region."

The Liberal Democrat spokesman on defence, Menzies Campbell, said Britain was right to carry out the programme of training soldiers for the Sierra Leone army though it should join the UN force. "If we want the UN mission to succeed, we should now assign British troops directly to the UN command," he said.

The Ministry of Defence last night refused to comment.

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