United Nations peacekeeping soldiers, backed by British paratroops, moved to defend entry points around Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, last night as they braced for clashes with the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front.
In New York the UN said the troops were ready to engage in a "pitched battle" if the rebels try to enter the capital or unseat the government. The warning came amid reports of fighting between rebels and the Sierra Leone army in areas near the capital and in the vicinity of Waterloo, 18 miles east. Hundreds of displaced civilians fled to the capital.
The British troops were also set to ferry Jordanian UN soldiers to the front, and it seems unlikely the 700 men could escape involvement if combat begins between rebels and the peacekeepers. Fred Eckhard, the UN spokesman, said: "We will do what we have to do to defend ourselves and the government. We hope it is not going to come to a pitched battle but in effect we are preparing for one."
The RUF advance on the capital was being achieved in part with armoured troop carriers seized when the rebels captured UN peacekeepers last week. As many as 500 UN personnel were still in RUF hands last night.
Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, said peace-keepers would not stand by if an assault on the capital were launched: "If the RUF is indeed moving, they will be checked."
In London signs were growing that Britain would be dragged deeper into the UN rearguard action and that the force sent ostensibly to carry out an evacuation was edging closer to frontline action.
In the Commons Tony Blair said Britain would do its utmost to uphold the legitimately elected government of Tejan Kabbah, promising to do "all we responsibly can to safeguard democracy in Sierra Leone".
For the moment the British paratroops are based in western Freetown or at Lungi airport, six miles away across an estuary, away from the fighting to the south and east. But pointers to "mission creep" were multiplying. The Government again said the troops would do nothing in Sierra Leone beyond helping evacuate foreign citizens. "British troops were sent there to do a specific job," Geoff Hoon, Secretary of State for Defence, said. "That's the job they will continue to do. There are limits to how many different engagements around the world we can be involved in."