Our role in Sierra Leone may be justified, but it must be open to scrutiny

The success of the operation to rescue six British soldiers held hostage in Sierra Leone should, of course, be welcomed - even if it has been at the cost of casualties both to the British and the rebel forces. The risk, however, is that the drama and the messiness of the military action could obscure our sight of the underling purpose of British involvement in this violent part of west Africa.

The success of the operation to rescue six British soldiers held hostage in Sierra Leone should, of course, be welcomed - even if it has been at the cost of casualties both to the British and the rebel forces. The risk, however, is that the drama and the messiness of the military action could obscure our sight of the underling purpose of British involvement in this violent part of west Africa.

Of the bravery of the rescue operation there can be little doubt. The dawn raid by helicopter on the renegade camp, 70 miles east of the capital Freetown; the exchange of heavy gunfire; the freeing of the six British soldiers and the Sierra Leonean soldier held captive for the past two weeks are reminiscent of a Hollywood film.

Put it against the background history of mercenaries, double-dealing gangsters, diamond smugglers and a kidnap group called the West Side Boys, who tried to bargain their way to a degree course at a British university as the price for releasing the hostages, and it is little wonder that some look on the British involvement as a reversion to Rider Haggard romance, and others regard it as a bungling mistake.

Beneath the apparent unreality of the situation, however, lies a deep seriousness. Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world, nominally presided over by a weak democratic government, torn apart by disorganised gangster armies. The international community has accepted its moral responsibility to try to protect the population there, but the UN peacekeepers are unable to engage in military operations against the bandit gangs.

Britain has partly risen to its greater responsibility, as the former colonial power, by sending in small numbers of troops who are - as we saw yesterday - prepared to engage in combat. By and large, however, they have not needed to do so in order to stabilise the country.

We should, however, resist another fictionalised treatment of the Sierra Leone story as a simple morality tale, entitled "Robin and Tony's Ethical Foreign Policy In Action". Although the Parachute Regiment's action yesterday should be applauded, and the bravery of the soldiers praised, it must be asked whether the taking of the hostages could have been avoided in the first place.

The Government has yet to come clean over the extent of its involvement in Sierra Leone, or over whether it has subcontracted the enforcement of international law to freelancers and intermediaries.

Yet it has nothing to be ashamed of in the broad purposes of its intervention. Tony Blair should have been prepared to deploy sufficient troops to Sierra Leone to do the job and carry it to a conclusion, which should have meant sufficient numbers to ensure that small units were not picked off by hostage-takers.

Equally, the Government should not be embarrassed by reports that former terrorists, such as Adama "Cut Hands" Toronka, are being trained by the British Army. Her case should be investigated, but the attempt to recruit and train a national army capable of defending Sierra Leone's fragile democracy is a noble one.

Mr Blair or Mr Cook should come to the House of Commons to explain fully the nature of our engagement, although there can be little doubt that yesterday's military action was part of an ethically justified intervention of which this country should be proud.

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