UN troops move in to end carnage in Sierra Leone

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The Independent Online

The 6,000 troops assigned by the United Nations to help implement a fragile peace deal for Sierra Leone face a delicate task in a country which has seen some of the worst carnage in the continent for years.

The 6,000 troops assigned by the United Nations to help implement a fragile peace deal for Sierra Leone face a delicate task in a country which has seen some of the worst carnage in the continent for years.

While UN officials pointed to Friday night's Security Council decision as evidence that they are as committed to Africa as to Kosovo or East Timor, politicians and observers in the West African country's capital, Freetown, were cautious. Septimus Kaikai, a presidential spokesman, described the move as ''a step in the right direction''.

A British aid worker in Freetown merely said: "We have learnt to take a wait-and-see attitude. There is a gigantic job to do here."

The UN initiative will be greeted with relief by Britain which had become involved in propping up the weak but elected government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.

Sierra Leone has seen eight years of coups and counter-offensives, and repeated evidence that the gun and machete are more powerful than democratic government. Up to 50,000 people have died and thousands more, many of them children, have had their hands, ears or lips chopped off by rebels linked to bush-war gangs dealing in drugs, power and diamonds.

Britain backed a Nigerian-led West African intervention force, Ecomog, against the rebels. But the rebels reached Freetown in January and Britain told President Kabbah to negotiate. The talks led to a peace accord, on 7 July, which gave amnesty to all parties, handed four ministries to the rebel Revolutionary United Front and offered its leader, Foday Sankoh, control of the diamond supply.

The UN force is expected to be deployed within two months and has a six-month mandate. It may use force under a provision which states that it can "take necessary action to ensure the security and freedom of movement of its personnel".

Under a demobilisation plan worked out by Britain, the rebels are to be given training and money, and efforts will be made to reintegrate them in their villages. Neither the disarmament nor demobilisation efforts have yet taken off, as the 15,000-strong Ecomog has been the only large-scale force.

The Sierra Leone force is the largest new UN peace-keeping mission approved since 1996. It is expected to incorporate some Ecomog troops who know the jungle terrain.

After the vote, the United States ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, pledged financial support and said: "There is no double-standard in the US concerning African peace-keeping - Sierra Leone is equally important to us as Kosovo and East Timor."

The Sierra Leone mission is the UN's largest commitment to Africa since a 7,000-strong force was sent to Angola between 1995 and June 1997.

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