UN admits it wants British troops to stay on to help the peace-keepers

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British troops sent to extricate European nationals from the latest violence in Sierra Leone may be asked to stay there to provide longer-term protection for UN peace-keepers, it emerged yesterday.

The UN, which faces a peace-keeping disaster, is making it an open secret that it would like the British to stay once the evacuation is complete. It is undetermined, however, whether British soldiers would be asked to fight against Sierra Leone's rebels. "The British Government has made clear what the mandate is - to assist the evacuation - but if it were to consider modifying the mandate to find ways of helping the peace-keepers, we would welcome it," said Shashi Tharoor, a senior aide to Kofi Annan, the Secretary General.

"We are already asking the question as to what other things the British soldiers might be able to do to help us."

Sentiment is growing at UN headquarters that Britain, as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, would have difficulty justifying a departure from Sierra Leone once all Europeans were out, while the UN peace-keeping operation teetered on the brink of breakdown.

The mandate for Unamsil, the UN force in Sierra Leone, allows it to use whatever firepower it needs in a limited set of circumstances, for example in the protection of its own personnel. Any major combat role by British troops would probably have to be blessed either by a new UN Security Council resolution or by a bilateral agreement between Britain and the Sierra Leone government.

With 500 of its personnel still held by rebel forces, the UN is scrambling to get more soldiers into Sierra Leone as fast as possible. Mr Annan may be looking to the British troops because his recent appeals for an international rapid reaction force have not been answered.

But British officials remained non-committal about longer-term plans for the troops, which, they said, have already benefited Unamsil. "Their arrival has been a visible boost to Unamsil," a spokeswoman said, "and that sort of signal is important in itself. But they are they are there for the evacuation of British citizens and we really can't go beyond that."

Talks continued, meanwhile, on the possible deployment by Nigeria of two battalions into Sierra Leone. But it was unclear who would pay for that deployment and how the Nigerians would work with Unamsil.

The UN is struggling to bring Unamsil up to the full strength of 11,100 troops that was set for it by the Security Council in February. Because of deployment delays, only about 8,000 UN soldiers are now in Sierra Leone.

America has agreed to transport a battalion of Bangladeshi soldiers to the country. But getting those and the other missing battalions from Jordan and India to Sierra Leone is made harder by the limited capacity of the airport at Freetown. It can only turn round two Galaxy transport aircraft each day.

While the UN would welcome Nigerian soldiers, some officials point out privately that it was the unexpectedly fast withdrawal of Nigeria from the country earlier this year which spurred the recent violence. Nigeria was there as part of the West African Ecomog force.

"I don't want to imply that the Nigerians did anything wrong," one official in New York said, "but it is certainly true that had they still been around this crisis might have been avoided."