No willing saviors for Freetown

Britain sends in troops for an airlift, as West ignores calls for more peacekeepers.

Hope landed briefly in Sierra Leone Tuesday, when British paratroopers set down in a massive Chinook helicopter and immediately set out to patrol the streets of this seaside capital.

These 800 soldiers, armed with automatic rifles and riding through the city in open army trucks fitted with menacing machine guns on tripods, have assumed control of a few key roadblocks, secured the airport, and brought relief to residents who have lost faith in United Nations peacekeepers.

But after just one day on the ground, the British contingent had all but finished the job they came to do - evacuate British, European Union, and Commonwealth passport holders.

The question now is whether these men and their heavy equipment will become embroiled in a fight with Sierra Leone's feared rebel force. Britain says its troops are not in Sierra Leone to fight.

UN peacekeepers have been roundly criticized for allowing themselves to be taken hostage, robbed of weapons and uniforms, and - in the latest debacle - lose the man they were sworn to guard and protect: the country's feared rebel leader, Foday Sankoh.

"He left under circumstances that are not clear," says David Wimhurst, the UN spokesman here. "We are anxious to find a way to contact Mr. Sankoh."

Without him, UN officials can not even begin to negotiate for the release of 498 people believed to be held hostage by Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Residents of Freetown fear that his disappearance could signal Sankoh's return to the bush - and to a brutal war that rent this country for eight ears.

But as the UN calls for more troops to reinforce its embattled peacekeeping force on the ground, the silence in Western capitals is deafening.

None of the countries able to quickly deploy significant numbers of well-trained soldiers - the United States, France, and Britain - have answered UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's appeal to send help.

What is holding them back, says Col. Terry Taylor, an analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, is "the bitter hand of experience."

"The major Western powers got a bloody nose in Somalia [when US troops lost scores of men and failed to end a civil war in 1993] and in Rwanda," where French soldiers pulled out as genocidal attacks on ethnic Tutsis began, Colonel Taylor points out. "There is great caution about putting their troops into situations where there is no clear line of confrontation or of settlement."

The US government has hinted it would be ready to airlift three battalions of fresh peacekeepers quickly to the region, from Jordan, Bangladesh, and India, but officials in Washington say no US soldiers will set foot in Sierra Leone.

Britain has sent an assessment team to help the UN force plan its logistical needs, and the fact that they have secured the airport helped the UN because reinforcement troops can now land safely.

France, said Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine yesterday, "is obliged to be prudent" about sending troops abroad since its Army is "already greatly stretched" by its participation in other peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo.

"It is very difficult for us to renounce our responsibilities elsewhere," Mr. Vedrine said. France's "priority," he added, was to keep troops in reserve in case they are needed to facilitate the planned withdrawal next July of the Israeli Army from the south of Lebanon, a former French colony.

"The French simply don't care about Sierra Leone," says Gerard Prunier, an Africa expert at the Paris-based National Center for Scientific Research. "The view is that it was a British colony, and so this is a British affair."

In London, the British government - the largest national donor to the faltering peace process - has shown no signs of answering Mr. Annan's call. Foreign Minister Robin Cook said that Britain "will not abandon its commitment to Sierra Leone." That commitment, however, does not extend to sending in combat troops.

This is, to a large extent, because London is not willing to risk British soldiers' lives in a complex and dangerous situation, but also because officials are dubious that they could make much difference.

The limits to British influence in former African colonies for which the government says it feels a moral responsibility were evident last month in Zimbabwe, where self-styled veterans of the independence war took over white-owned farms, killing three farmers and several black farm workers.

The British government, which brokered the peace accord in 1978 that ended the war and led to the creation of Zimbabwe, was the loudest critic of the land seizures, but that did not stop President Robert Mugabe from siding with the squatters.

The European Union last week "strongly condemned" RUF attacks on the UN peacekeepers deploying throughout the country to replace a Nigerian-led regional peacekeeping force that had been in place since last year.

The EU also expressed its "strong support" for the Lom peace accord, signed last year, which was meant to end the fighting by offering rebel leaders seats in the government and giving a blanket amnesty to RUF fighters accused of massive atrocities during eight years of war.

But European officials are now beginning to see the weaknesses of the Lom accord as being the real problem, in light of the fact that nearly a year after it was signed the RUF, mutinous members of the Sierra Leone army and pro-government militia have all failed to disarm.

"At bottom, it is not a real agreement," Vedrine said. "It is clear that the protagonists did not intend to respect it when they signed it." Mr. Annan, he suggested, should "go back to the political accord itself" and perhaps renegotiate it.

The fragility of the peace agreement is also a key factor behind Western nations' reluctance to commit troops, analysts say. With no peace to keep, there is little point in deploying peacekeepers, as the lightly armed UN soldiers discovered last week, and nobody is willing to send the number of troops needed to enforce the peace.

The heads of nine African countries met in Nigeria on Tuesday to discuss the crisis. After the meeting, they issued a strongly worded statement trying to bring Sankoh in line, and said they would gather again next Wednesday to consider practical detains "in the event of new involvement ... in Sierra Leone."

But the plight of the 8,700 troops already deployed in Sierra Leone will undoubtedly give pause to UN officials planning the deployment of 5,500 peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That planning, says Taylor, "has been properly slow. If any hostages are taken there, it will just discredit the UN even more."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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