UN peace-keepers' reputation on the line

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The Independent Online

Four months ago, when Royal Navy ships and 1,000 paratroopers stepped in to save a United Nations peace-keeping operation and prevent the over-running of Sierra Leone by rebels, many said Britain was entering a quagmire.

Four months ago, when Royal Navy ships and 1,000 paratroopers stepped in to save a United Nations peace-keeping operation and prevent the over-running of Sierra Leone by rebels, many said Britain was entering a quagmire.

For all its success, yesterday's operation merely underlines that fact. But for the Government, whatever the rekindled doubts about the wisdom of committing money and men to support the regime of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, there is no alternative.

Tony Blair said: "British personnel are in Sierra Leone in order to save that country from dictatorship, from armed gangs who are already responsible for thousands of deaths."

Moreover, events in Sierra Leone could determine the wider fate of UN peace-keeping.For that reason, a débâcle would undermine prospects for the much larger operation that will be required to restore stability to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Since May, when the British intervention saved the UN peace-keepers and led to the capture of the rebel leader Foday Sankoh, the Sierra Leone government has re-established its grip around Freetown. But the rest is anarchy. In the north and east of the country, where the bulk of Sierra Leone's diamond fields are, the writ of Mr Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front still runs, with the help of President Charles Taylor of Liberia.

Although the UN Security Council passed a resolution in July banning uncertified diamond exports from Sierra Leone, Britain failed to extend it to Liberia, through which many of the "blood diamonds" reach world markets. Adding to the mix is instability in Guinea, bordering Sierra Leone and Liberia to their north. In the region where the three countries meet, each one's territory offers refuge for opponents of the other's regimes.

So even with the smoothest-running force the UN would have a job maintaining order. As it is, the 13,000-strong force in the country, commanded by the Indian Major-General Vijay Kumar Kettley, is not only ill-equipped and poorly motivated, but riven by resentment between its African and non-African components.

None of these problems improves the chances of rebuilding Sierra Leone, which means British military trainers and advisers, numbering between 400 and 500, are likely to be there for a good while yet.

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