Blair gets hero's welcome in Sierra Leone

British Prime Minister Tony Blair was made an honorary paramount chief while visiting the country on a tour of Africa this week.

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If Prime Minister Tony Blair has lost popularity on the world stage because of the Iraq war, no one has told Sierra Leoneans. Earlier this week, Mr. Blair was greeted as a hero and crowned a paramount chief of the West African state rescued from civil war by British troops in 2000.

The British intervention marked a high point in Blair's Africa policy. "This was the last case of a successful liberal intervention before the Iraq debacle, and it was a success in that it brought about a dramatic military result," says Tom Cargill, an expert at the Chatham House think tank in Britain.

In 2000, 800 troops arrived in Freetown to evacuate British citizens and secure the airport for UN peacekeepers. They were quickly drawn into fighting RUF rebels and helped end the brutal 11-year civil war.

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Sierra Leoneans are vociferously grateful. Indeed, Mohammed Tejan wants Blair to run the place. "Now there is no one to look after us, we are like orphans," he says. "Our government can't do it, but the British can."

"Tony Blair is a great man!" says Mohammed Kaloko, a young taxi driver. "The British support us with money, but our government just takes it and they [steal]."

Under Blair, Britain has been Sierra Leone's largest bilateral donor, annually giving $79 million in aid and $24 million for a military presence to train the 10,500-strong Army, which has in the past undertaken five coups. "While welcome in bringing about peace and security ... [intervention] ... failed to remove the underlying causes of the war: youth unemployment and corruption," says Mr. Cargill.

In Freetown, decrepit roads and colonial houses tumble down deforested hillsides toward vast slums. Electricity and clean water are scarce.

Unemployment is near 70 percent. One in 4 children die before age 5; life expectancy is just over 40 years. Despite five years of peace, elections scheduled for August, and vast mineral wealth, Sierra Leone remains one of the world's poorest countries.

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