UN in crisis as guerrilla army seizes 300 troops

British military experts were arriving in Sierra Leone today where 318 UN personnel, including at least one Briton, have been taken as hostages and at least four peace-keepers have been killed.

The Ministry of Defence announced that a team of about a dozen men drawn from all three services were due in the capital Freetown to advise the UN on how to improve the efficiency of its 8,500-strong operation in the west African country.

But the UK has turned down an urgent United Nations request to send a rapid reaction force to help deal with the crisis which has engulfed UN efforts to maintain security in Sierra Leone. The situation escalated sharply yesterday as officials reported rebel forces had disarmed peace-keepers and commandeered 13 white-painted armoured vehicles.

The crisis in the West African country may be turning into one of the UN's worst peace-keeping disasters. As well as seizing UN personnel - both soldiers and civilian observers - the insurgents of the Rebel United Front (RUF) have refused all appeals to release the hostages unarmed.

The secretary general of the UN, Kofi Annan, approached Britain, the United States and France to mobilise a rapid-reaction force to move into the country to reinforce the 8,700-member UN mission.

The three countries refused to commit any troops or logistical help.

Britain and the US have indicated they might provide transport support but both ruled out any ground troops.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, while condemning the attacks, said that Britain was sending "an advisory team" to Freetown, which is due to arrive today.

"Britain would do all that it reasonably could to support the UN forces in their mission," Mr Cook told Mr Annan.

The UN force was deployed in Sierra Leone in January to guarantee a peace deal that was struck last year between the rebels and the government. The leader of the RUF, Foday Sankoh, took a ministerial position under the deal but has since refused to honour a pledge to disarm his soldiers.

The UN spokesman in New York, Fred Eckhard, confirmed last night that the numbers of personnel detained by the RUF had risen dramatically.

"The numbers of detentions of UN personnel continues to climb," Mr Eckhard said. "The latest estimate could be as high as 318."

By Thursday night, officials at the UN headquarters in New York believed that 92 people had been captured.

Then yesterday there were reports that an additional 208 members of the Zambian contingent in the force had also fallen to RUF control. At one point, Mr Eckhard reported, some 100 Nigerian soldiers were also detained only to be released later, "minus their weapons".

Officials believe that the RUF is using UN vehicles to mobilise its forces through Sierra Leone. Reports indicated that they were "on the move", Mr Eckhard said. The vehicles had apparently been taken from the Zambian contingent.

Mr Annan called the attacks "outrageous and criminal".

The peace-keeping force is multi-national, mostly made up of soldiers from African countries and India and was originally meant to reach a size of 11,000 soldiers.

Not for the first time, however, the UN has had difficulty in persuading enough countries to contribute sufficient numbers to the force.

If the effort in Sierra Leone crumbles into violence, questions will be raised about a recently authorised mission to send a smaller UN peace-keeping force to Congo.

Mr Annan noted that events this week may also affect the willingness of Western countries to commit to future African peace-keeping missions. "After Sierra Leone, I think there's going to be very little encouragement for any of them to get involved in operations in Africa," Mr Annan said.

"Ideally one would want to see a rapid-reaction force go in to assist. But this can only happen if those with capacity are prepared to offer."

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