Walking away now is to give this country up to death

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If ever there was a choice between good and evil, barbarism and civilisation it is now in Sierra Leone.

On the one side there is an elected government doing its best to rebuild a country shattered by nine years of war, on the other a rabble called the Revolutionary United Frontthat murders, rapes and cuts the hands and feet off children. Cannibalism is common.

How did things reach such a ghastly state? After decades of corrupt government and coups there was a real election in 1996 which brought Ahmad Tejan Kabbah to power. But he was chased out the following year when the army overthrew him and invited the RUF to join them in government. A Nigerian-led peace-keeping force drove out the coup makers and rebels from the capital in February 1998 but they came back again in January last year. They slaughtered about 5,000 people before the Nigerians returned. Ghastly television pictures of the fighting, caught America's eye and Jesse Jackson, President Bill Clinton's special representative for Africa, was dispatched to make peace.

The result was an ill-timed, ill-thought out agreement which President Kabbah was forced to sign in Lomé last July. It was even-handed in its treatment of the the country's elected leader and Foday Sankoh the head of the RUF. Mr Sankoh is a psychopath who would be convicted of crimes against humanity in any court.

The story of Sierra Leone is not well-known in Britain. A pity. Because Sierra Leone represents Britain's oldest and deepest links to Africa. The first Briton to arrive was Sir John Hawkins in 1562. He promptly seized 300 local inhabitants and shipped them across the Atlantic, beginning the British slave trade which was to take more than two and a half million Africans to America.

Just over 200 years later, many of their descendants fought on the British side in the American War of Independence. When Britain lost, many black troops were shipped toNova Scotia where they died of cold and neglect. Others came to Britain and the streets of Liverpool, London and Bristol filled with thousands of unemployed black people. In 1787 more than six hundred of them were shipped to Sierra Leone to start a new life in Africa. Sierra Leone became the base for the Navy's anti-slavery patrol and thousands of slaves were freed there.

In recent years Britain has been instrumental in promoting the UN's biggest peace-keeping operation for Sierra Leone. This is more than just another attempt to bring peace to another war-torn African country. If the world cannot stop this small West African state from going to hell, what can it do for the rest of Africa? A line in the sand has been drawn on the world's commitment to Africa and it has been drawn in Sierra Leone.

Will the British troops stay on and help save Sierra Leone? That decision may be taken by Tony Blair today.

It would be no great risk for the troops to stay on and secure Freetown. It is easy to defend the peninsular the city lies on and that would give Sierra Leonean government forces time to prepare.

This is crunch time for Sierra Leone. To walk away now would be to give this country up to death. It would also mean that, despite all the rhetoric about treating Africa the same as anywhere else in the world, when the going gets tough, Britain and the US walk away. That would be shameful.

Richard Dowden is Africa Editor with 'The Economist'