UN seeks to increase peace force to 20,500

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The Independent Online

The number of United Nations peace-keepers in Sierra Leone is likely to be massively augmented, and its controversial commanding officer replaced in a move Britain hopes will revitalise the much-criticised force.

The number of United Nations peace-keepers in Sierra Leone is likely to be massively augmented, and its controversial commanding officer replaced in a move Britain hopes will revitalise the much-criticised force.

A draft resolution which could go before the Security Council this week calls for an increase from 12,500 peacekeepers to 20,500. In a jump of this size, command would normally pass to a more senior officer than the present Indian commander, Major-General Vijay Kumar Jetley.

Almost since the outset the force, Unamsil, has been hampered by low morale and tension between its African and non-African components. In the past few weeks that has come close to boiling point as a result of an unpublished but widely circulated internal UN report from General Jetley, bitterly critical of senior Nigerian officers on the force.

The report, and its accusations of corruption by the Nigerians and collusion with the Sierra Leone rebels, has drawn a predictably furious reaction in Nigeria, and is likely to colour the official visit to Britain of Nigeria's president, Olusegun Obasanjo, which starts tomorrow, with the key topic the crisis in Sierra Leone.

Nigeria was the lead nation in the West African regional force, Ecomog, which helped restore Sierra Leone's president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, to power after he was ousted in a coup in 1996 and which for more than a year kept the rebels at bay.

But the UN force which replaced it was rapidly driven back to the point where a British task-force had to be sent in May to save both it and the Kabbah government from complete collapse.

The idea now is that a beefed-up, more cohesive UN force will follow close behind a strengthened Sierra Leonean army as it attempts to break the grip of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) on the country's crucial diamond-producing regions in the north and east of the country.

A successful UN operation is an essential precondition if Britain is to disengage from Sierra Leone. Since May, 2,000 Sierra Leonean military personnel have been been given some retraining by British advisers, but the Government admits British forces will be there for many months more.

Conservative calls for immediate withdrawal were "beneath contempt", said Peter Hain, Foreign Office minister for Africa. If Britain pulled out it would play into the hands of the rebels. "Britain's name would be dragged through the mud in Africa and many Unamsil partners would be asking big questions," he said. Geoff Hoon, Secretary of State for Defence, said troop numbers could be bolstered if a threat of revenge attacks emerged.

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