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Thursday, 1 June, 2000, 13:41 GMT 14:41 UK
Army defends Sierra Leone leaflets
troops in Sierra Leone jungle
Many Sierra Leonean people want troops to stay
UK defence chiefs have played down the contrast between reassuring leaflets handed out to people in Sierra Leone - and the recapturing of a strategic town by rebels.

They say they never intended to lead residents into thinking the fighting had ended.

The timing may have been bad luck but it doesn't change anything

Lt Cdr Tony Cramp
Early on Wednesday, British soldiers in the capital Freetown began distributing leaflets from the Sierra Leone army, preparing people for the forces' withdrawal.

The leaflets said the UK military force had achieved its mission of stabilising the security situation while Unamsil (UN forces) arrived.

"The recent military successes by the government of Sierra Leone defence forces clearly demonstrate the effectiveness and cohesion that now exist," they went on.

"The UK fully supports their increasingly impressive capability.

"The government of Sierra Leone defence forces and Unamsil are building closer co-operation in a number of areas including convoys, intelligence and inspection of troop movements."

Diamond trail

But within hours, rebels had recaptured the strategic town of Lunsar from pro-government forces.

Lunsar is on a major highway that leads from the capital to the rebel-held town of Makeni and the rest of the diamond-rich east of the country.

UK marines
British marines are due to start withdrawing next month
The leaflets also gave reassurance about the training that UK soldiers would be giving the Sierra Leone army after pulling out.

They read: "A strong British military team will remain to assist the government defence forces and Unamsil."

Lt Commander Tony Cramp, based in Sierra Leone, admitted to BBC News Online that the timing of the leaflets had been unfortunate.

But he said: "The aim of the leaflets is to restate the British commitment to Lunghi Airport and in the long-term, the assistance and advisory team we're providing to the army here.

"The timing may have been bad luck but it doesn't change anything."

Lt Cdr Cramp said the marines and British ships were not the most significant part of the UK mission. It would be the advisory team which would be most important, he said.

And on the possibility of the rebels making further progress, he said: "Nobody ever said it was going to be a walkover. There are going to be setbacks, but the significant thing is the alliance between pro-government forces is strengthening and we're starting to see improvements in logistics."

He said there was a huge groundswell of opinion in Sierra Leone which did not want UK forces to pull out.

UN support

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "There's no denying there's a civil war going on.

"However, the messages were that the UN are in a much stronger position now than before, not that the fighting had stopped.

"We will be bringing troops back in the middle of June. But our presence there has allowed the UN to strengthen its presence.

"We never went to Sierra Leone with the aim of stopping the civil war, we went to evacuate Britons and help the UN secure the airport, which we've done."

He said a military advisory team of about 90 people - possibly more in future - is staying on to train and restructure the Sierra Leone army for at least three years.

The UK's Royal Marines, who last week replaced the paratroops, are preparing to withdraw in about two weeks' time.

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See also:

29 May 00 | Africa
More troops for Sierra Leone
26 May 00 | Africa
Still open for diamond business
27 May 00 | UK Politics
UK troops 'out by June'
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