AS the crack of automatic-rifle fire faded into the dense jungle, the senior drill instructor ran a finger over bullet holes in a paper target.
"Not good enough," Lt. Col. Pine Pinaar said firmly. "You're not going to survive in the jungle if you don't hit this target. Are you with me?" Ramrod-straight, the young soldier replied: "Sir!"
Standing under the near-equatorial sun at the training camp outside the capital, Freetown, the two men made an odd pair: The black Sierra Leonean soldier wore torn, dirty camouflage fatigues and ragged sneakers. The instructor, a burly white South African, was natty in starched battle dress and a wide-brimmed bush hat.
More soldiers waited behind them, many carrying worn sticks instead of rifles. "It's a logistical problem," Mr. Pinaar said, flashing an easy smile. "There aren't sufficient weapons to give each chap his own."
Equipment may be a problem for the infantry, but these days, professional training is not.
Pinaar is one of 150 South Africans, many of them black, hired by Sierra Leone's military government in February to help its Army better beat back guerrillas.
The South Africans are all members of a Pretoria-based company called Executive Outcomes. They are widely regarded as Africa's masters of guerrilla fighting.
Critics describe these soldiers as mercenaries, or hired guns.
Pinaar honed his combat skills as a member of South Africa's elite special forces during the long civil war in Angola. For the past few months, he and others have been teaching those skills in Sierra Leone, the former British colony on Africa's West Coast. During four years of a brutal civil war, Sierra Leone's poorly trained soldiers have taken heavy casualties from a small, but fierce band of rebels in the jungle.
Critics point out that the South Africans once fought with Jonas Savimbi's UNITA rebels in Angola, then switched sides and helped the government defeat the rebels for a reported fee of $40 million.
"I don't consider myself a mercenary," Pinaar says. "We have a client, the client has a certain need. We are in the business to train up armies."
To some diplomats and analysts, Executive Outcomes' military advisers are a worrisome anomaly in post-cold-war Africa. Once hated for their clandestine and brutal operations in Namibia, Angola, and formerly white-run Rhodesia, these professional soldiers are now welcomed in some countries for that same bush-war expertise.
"I feel they are helpful to us, especially their tactics," said Sierra Leone Army 2nd Lt. Saidu Marah. "I would like them to be with us for a long time, to get the war finished."
Over the years, widespread corruption, coups, and now four years of fighting have devastated the potentially prosperous country. An estimated 50,000 people have been killed, half the country's population of 4 million has been made homeless, roads have been closed by rebel ambushes, and diamond and bauxite mining has ground to a halt.
By May, rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by Foday Sankoh, a former Army corporal, had paralyzed the country and reached the suburbs of the capital. The rebels appeared poised to topple leader Chairman Valentine Strasser, a former Army captain who took power in a 1992 coup, but who has pledged to return the country to civilian rule with presidential elections in 1996.
Mr. Strasser hired Executive Outcomes to transform his ragtag Army into a professional fighting force. Now, after a string of Army successes, the uniformed Executive Outcomes troops are warmly greeted on the rundown, but relatively relaxed streets of Freetown.
Executive Outcomes officers provide training and battle-planning, but deny they participate in combat except in self-defense. They also coordinate their operations with other foreign mercenaries hired by Strasser's government.
The South Africans' services do not come cheap. Executive Outcomes officials will not say how much they earn, individually or as a company, in Sierra Leone. But consistent reports say the company is being paid $500,000 a month, and its soldiers typically earn $2,000 a month or more.
Executive Outcomes is greater than the sum of its military advisers. It's part of an interlocking group of more than 80 companies involved in diverse activities from mining to water purification.
Officials declined to discuss corporate relationships and activities. But frequent reports and some officials say that Executive Outcomes' holding company, Pretoria-based Strategic Resources Corp., also owns part of a company called Branch Mining. Branch, in turn, is said to have been awarded diamond-mining concessions as partial payment for its work in Sierra Leone. Executive Outcomes officials do not deny these reports.
"We are a business," said Eeben Barlow, Executive Outcomes' general manager, who founded the company in 1989 in South Africa's capital, Pretoria.
Before he was laid off, Mr. Barlow spent 17 years in the South African Army, including a stint in 32 Battalion, which gained notoriety for its dirty-tricks operations.
With the end of the cold war in 1989, Barlow saw an opportunity waiting to be seized: Special-forces soldiers with years of combat experience were being thrown out of work, but Africa's brush-fire wars continued. Neither the Organization for African Unity nor the United Nations has been able to control African conflicts.
Barlow said Executive Outcomes helps legitimate governments do what other countries can't or won't. He bristles at the term "mercenary," and denies that Executive Outcomes hires out to the highest bidder. "We're not going to get involved in countries where atrocities or genocide is being committed, we won't get involved in religious wars, we won't get involved in conflicts where we don't understand the particular politics of that conflict," he said.
Barlow and others refused to disclose where the company operates, apart from Sierra Leone and Angola. But one military officer said it guards mining operations in Uganda and Kenya.
Others said talks are under way about possible contracts with the governments of Sudan, Malawi, and Mozambique, and with at least one government in East Asia.
Government officials and diplomats in several countries have begun to debate the question: Is Executive Outcomes a band of well-paid soldiers of fortune, or is it a successful corporation doing a distasteful but necessary job?
The South African government of President Nelson Mandela, a bit embarrassed at having mercenaries operating from its own capital, says it plans to introduce legislation that would ban South African citizens from involving themselves in foreign military conflicts. The government says it is not yet ready to condemn Executive Outcomes, but admits it is uneasy about the company's operations in unstable countries.
"It might bring short-term benefits, but in the long term it creates conditions for the country to be seen as an easy target by these forces," said Aziz Pahad, South Africa's deputy foreign minister. "So today they're there to defend you, tomorrow those forces will be there to overthrow you."
Others fret that Executive Outcomes has outgrown its small offices in Pretoria. "It's now becoming an international or a multinational type of concern, with reports indicating that there are large contingents of soldiers from all over the world, former combatants, becoming involved in Executive Outcomes," said Jakkie Cilliers, director of the Institute for Defense Policy, a Johannesburg military-research group.
"The fact is that responsibility for global peace and security, for law and order, cannot be diverted to a private body, a mercenary outfit, which is beyond the control of either government or international bodies, but is purely commercial in its undertaking," Mr. Cilliers said.
In Pretoria, Barlow waved off criticism. "We are a force for stability," he said. "We are from Africa, and if we're not going to solve our problems for us, no one's going to... and we will solve our problems if governments ask us to."