UN vows: 'We will not withdraw' as rebels circle

Sierra Leone: Security Council rallies around beleaguered mission as confidential report describes cold-blooded murder of peace-keeper
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The Independent Online

The United Nations made clear yesterday that it has no plans to abandon its efforts to oversee last July's peace accord in Sierra Leone, even though it was critically compromised as soon as the rebel side began attacking peacekeepers and taking them into captivity as hostages.

Officials at UN headquarters in New York privately admit that contingency plans for an emergency pull-out of the peace-keepers, who number8,000, are in place. British soldiers helping foreign nationals evacuate from Sierra Leone could be called upon similarly to extricate UN soldiers, a source said. But to flee Sierra Leone now would catastrophically damage the credibility of the UN and of UN peace-keepers worldwide. "We will not withdraw," one senior UN aide insisted last night. Blindsided by events in Sierra Leone and still deeply concerned for the welfare of the 500 UN personnel in rebel hands, officials in New York stress that the main responsibility for the breakdown in the peace-keeping operation has to lie with the rebels.

"We assumed a level of willingness on the part of those who signed the peace accords. We had not yet completed deployment when the crisis arose," said Shashi Tharoor, a senior policy adviser at the UN.

But there is also widespread acknowledgement that the UN has been partly responsible for the violence of recent days. The deployment of the peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone, UNAMSIL, has been unusually chaotic: many soldiers are badly trained and have arrived with sub-standard equipment.

UN headquarters itself, however, has only a limited influence on the calibre of soldiers who are deployed. Countries who offer soldiers to peacekeeping missions are responsible for their training and the equipment that they arrive with.

"We have to take the forces we get," the Secretary General, Kofi Annan, told reporters yesterday. He noted once again that his appeals for an international rapid reaction force to crush the rebel militia in Sierra Leone had gone unanswered. "The UN is only as strong as its member states, and we go back to the question of political will, and resources, and the willingness to commit the resources," he said.

British forces in Sierra Leone are there ostensibly to evacuate British civilians. But they might, under certain circumstances, expand their role. The principal motive for British intervention is to prevent a disaster for the UN. Britain does not want to see Mr Annan's position weakened; and it wants to see support for future African peace-keeping missions.

A disaster in Sierra Leone might make it all but impossible for future missions - hence the willingness to stretch the mission in Sierra Leone, if not to expand it to the point of active intervention.

They might even, conceivably, serve as the core of a rapid reaction force for the peacekeepers, acting as a "force multiplier" and helping to boost the capacity of African, Asian and Middle Eastern units once deployed.

But until other forces arrive, Britain will not commit itself: that would merely delay decisions by other nations to respond.