UK troops expand role in Sierra Leone war

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The Independent Online

A 500-strong British military taskforce arrived in Sierra Leone at the weekend in a controversial display of support for the government.

A 500-strong British military taskforce arrived in Sierra Leone at the weekend in a controversial display of support for the government.

The troops arrived as the government celebrated two armistices. Saturday 11 November marked the beginning of a 30-day ceasefire that might - if honoured - end nine years of more than usually horrific warfare between the people of Sierra Leone and the Revolutionary United Front.

Yesterday soldiers and civilians from Britain, Sierra Leone, the Commonwealth and the United Nations came together at King Tom Cemetery in Freetown to commemorate the dead from previous, wider wars. As three Royal Navy vessels lay offshore, troops from Britain's 400-strong training team and from the visiting RN/Royal Marine reaction force paraded for the traditional commemoration of the dead.

A bugler sound "The Last Post", and veterans of the old King's West African Frontier Force paraded with British medals won in Burmese jungles, fighting the Japanese.

The coincidence in the dates of the two ceasefires might seem like a good occasion for some governmental spin. But as British personnel paradedamong the headstones of those who died on the old Freetown Station - wasted by fever, perhaps, or torpedoed off the African coast - the imagery will not have pleased many people in Westminster and Whitehall.

Britain, despite its massive financial, diplomatic and training commitment, is determined that no more servicemen or women will join those whom the receding Empire left lying by the shore at King Tom's.

Speaking to journalists after the ceremony, Brigadier David Richards, commander of the military training mission in Sierra Leone, pointed out that British troops were not there to fight but to turn the ramshackle Sierra Leone Army into a force capable of doing so itself. "We are not here to conduct operations against the Revolutionary United Front, but to facilitate others who may wish to do so."British forces will react if their own safety is under threat.

Clashes between the RUF guerrillas and paratroops in May, and the SAS rescue of six hostages from the Royal Irish Regiment in September, have cost the lives of at least 38 anti-government fighters. Lance Bombardier Brad Tinnion, who was killed in the rescue, is the one British fatality to date.

Reports from the interior say that the virtual annihilation of the "West Side Boys" militia in the dawn rescue has terrified the RUF, already weakened by the capture of its founder, Foday Sankoh, and by diplomatic pressure on its main backer, the Liberian President, Charles Taylor.

But some military and diplomatic observers fear that Britain's unwillingness to commit its people to a more frontline role - however understandable - could have serious ramifications for future peace in Sierra Leone.

The 3,000 SLA troops the British have trained and organised so far are in many cases no less brutal or criminal than the RUF rebels they are supposed to police. Many witnesses claim that mutinous SLA men were in the forefront of the terror campaign that saw hands, feet, ears and lips hacked from up to 10,000 civilians in the past three years.

Meanwhile the UN Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone is even weaker than it was in May, when only British intervention seemed to save the UN from losing Freetown to a numerically weaker and ill-equipped RUF. The key 3,000-strong Indian army contingent is being withdrawn next month after a dispute between the former Indian force commander and Nigerian forces under his UN command.

The Jordanian contingent of two battalions is also withdrawing, with both countries complaining that no First World country has sent troops to serve under UN command.

It is now up to this weakened, demoralised and discredited UN force to go out and occupy areas held by the RUF, including the diamond fields in the east. The last time they tried to do this, hundreds were taken hostage, while some contingents simply ran away.

The fear in Freetown is that the RUF may be using the ceasefire to buy time, and to lure weak forces out to its strongholds. If that is the case, British forces may be called on to do more than train and supply. And if Britain was to refuse, Freetown could find itself under threat of murder, pillage, rape and mutilation again.