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The BBC's Mark Doyle in Freetown
"Peace keepers have been squabbling among themselves"
 real 56k

Wednesday, 27 December, 2000, 10:05 GMT
Sierra Leone: A tumultuous year
freetown
Indian troops withdrew after bitter UN infighting
By West Africa Correspondent Mark Doyle

Russian United Nations helicopter gunships have been flying on the frontline in eastern Sierra Leone - in what is a highly unusual degree of firepower for a peacekeeping operation.

But this UN operation has been in deep trouble over what has been a tumultuous year for Sierra Leone.

Indian UN soldier
The Indian soliders were among the best equipped
In May, just as the UN mandate began, the ceasefire in the war broke down and rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) kidnapped hundreds of UN personnel.

That crisis is now over but it was a deep humiliation for the UN, threatening not only its operation in Sierra Leone but the very concept of international peacekeeping.

UK steps in

When the kidnapping crisis developed, the former colonial power Britain intervened, but not under the UN flag.

UK troops stabilised the UN presence - and probably saved the internationally recognised Sierra Leone government from collapse.

As the year draws to a close, a new ceasefire has come into effect, but the UN is still far from deploying into all of the rebel held areas as its mandate says it should.

To make matters worse, the past year saw internal splits between UN commanders.

Indian spat with Nigeria

The Indian commander of the force criticised Nigerian colleagues for undermining him and even accused commanders of Ecomog, a Nigerian-led regional peace enforcement army which preceded the UN operation, of corruption.

jetley
General Vijay Jetley left along with Indian troops
The Nigerians in turn slammed the Indian UN commander, Vijay Kumar Jettley, as incompetent for allowing his men to be kidnapped.

Jetley has now gone and been replaced by a Kenyan three-star general, Daniel Opande.

He accepts that there is a lot to be done to improve the peacekeeping mission.

One of the effects of the power struggle between Indian and Nigerian UN officers was the phased withdrawal of the Indian contingent, which was one of the largest and best equipped in the international force.

UN seen as weak

This has raised fears of a power vacuum that the rebels could exploit if the war restarts.

The kidnap drama involving hundreds of UN troops left many Sierra Leonians with little faith in the UN.

Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan visited UN peacekeepers
The Sierra Leonian Information Minister, Julius Spencer, said that although the international peacekeepers seemed now to be slowly getting their act together, when they first arrived some of them gave the impression that they didn't understand the seriousness of the situation and were in Sierra Leone "on holiday".

The Indians are leaving a peacekeeping mission which is in the unusual position of essentially backing one side in the war.

The Sierra Leone government is being supported in its fight against rebels responsible for widespread atrocities.

The RUF now says it is committed to peace, and as the year draws to a close it has promised to re-open a key section of highway leading to the zone it controls.

This may allow the UN to start deploying nationwide.

UK made the difference

But few Sierra Leonians think it was the UN that brought the rebels to the negotiating table.


The British message to the RUF was clear: "Don't try anything"

The UK troops which arrived in May have now given basic military training to several thousand Sierra Leone government army troops and British officers on secondment are found in most key command positions in the army.

In November, in a classic piece of gunboat diplomacy, the UK put on a display of force on Freetown's beaches, landing hundreds of marines and dozens of helicopters.

The British message to the RUF was clear: "Don't try anything, because even if the UN may be weak, we are not".

Privately, many British officers say they have no faith in the UN.

'Neo-colonialism'

The RUF has roundly condemned the British intervention as neo-colonial and described the British as mercenaries out to gain control of the rich diamond mines the rebels at present occupy.

British helicopters - Ministry of Defence handout photo
British troops land near Freetown
The neo-colonial charge is potent.

It's a fact that at present Britain controls the army - even if, of course, there is a Sierra Leonian colonel in nominal charge.

A British policeman on secondment also leads the Sierra Leonian police force, and a British Accountant General keeps a check on public finances.

However, while the rebels may have a powerful anti-colonial argument with which to rally their followers, many Sierra Leonians on the government side of the front lines say they want to be recolonised.

Incredible though this may sound to liberal ears, it is a reflection of the failure of the Sierra Leonian political class to end the war and deliver the economic development the country so desperately needs.

Flight from rebels

Tens of thousands of people have fled the rebel held countryside to reach the relative safety provided by Sierra Leonian government army soldiers in towns like Bumbuna in northern Sierra Leone.

The malnourished children receive some help from foreign aid agencies and their local partners.

They wouldn't need it if their parents could get on with their lives and grow food.

But they can't.

The refugees in Bumbuna say the rebels persistently pressgang men into joining them, rape the women, and steal farmers' crops.

Mutilation

Mutilated girl
Mutilation is a common tactic
Fatou Conteh, an old lady whose farm was attacked by the RUF, is one of many thousands of people who have had their limbs hacked off in a terror campaign apparently designed to stop people supporting the government side in the war.

The terror campaign reached its height in the late 1990s, and the number of reported amputations is now far lower.

But the scars remain. The violence that drives people off their land has turned a fertile country into an economic basket case.

The international community help build peace in Sierra Leone.

But Sierra Leonian politicians on all sides have failed their people many times before, and there's no guarantee that a peace imposed by foreign troops will last.

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See also:

16 Nov 00 | Africa
UK defends military tactics
22 Sep 00 | Africa
Sierra Leone peacekeeping crisis
07 Sep 00 | Americas
Africa: UN's 'strategic ghetto'
31 Aug 00 | Africa
Sierra Leone timeline
19 Nov 00 | Africa
New UN chief in Sierra Leone
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