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Wednesday, 16 January, 2002, 04:11 GMT
UK backs Sierra Leone border force
RSLAF infantryman with Rocket-Propelled Grenade
The army says there is still a potential threat from rebel remnants
Mark Doyle

Sierra Leonean troops and armed British military advisers have begun deploying near Sierra Leone's sensitive borders with Liberia and Guinea ahead of Sierra Leone's elections in May.

Map of Sierra Leone

I was the first journalist to witness the deployment, which began late last year, travelling by helicopter with British and Sierra Leonean military officers.

The deployment is sensitive and potentially controversial because the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) held the east for many years, and have in the past used rear bases in Liberia.

Now the rebels have largely disarmed, handing their weapons over to the United Nations, which has its largest peacekeeping force in the world in Sierra Leone.

The country is more peaceful than it has been in 10 years.

Rebels eye elections

The British forces, which number several hundred, are not part of the UN operation, although they cooperate closely with it.

Demobilised RUF rebels
The rebels say they want to turn into a political party

The rebels say, and the UN appears to believe them, that they want to transform themselves into a political party and contest the forthcoming presidential elections peacefully.

But British and Sierra Leonean officers of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) say there is still a potential threat from rebel remnants, and that the borders must in any case be secured before the post-war elections, due 14 May.

This is why they have now begun deployment in the east.

Diamond country

I visited several Sierra Leone army positions, including the well-defended village of Kainkordu, 30 kilometres from the border with Guinea and in the area where the borders of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia meet.

This is diamond country. Throughout the area I saw theoretically illegal diamond mining taking place.

Other recently-established RSLAF positions I visited were north of the diamond-trading town of Kenema.

RSLAF officers said they intended to secure these positions further in coming weeks by moving closer to the Liberian frontier.

Rebel faction threat

One senior Sierra Leonean military officer commanding troops in the east said he was concerned by a breakaway RUF group he named as the "Independent RUF" (IRUF), which he alleged was led by Sam "Mosquito" Bokarie.

British officer with Sierra Leone army insignia on his tunic
Some members of the British forces wear RSLAF insignia

Mosquito, or Maskita in the local Krio language, was given the nom de guerre because of his reputed ability to sting and move quickly.

The former RUF field commander fell out with the main body of the rebel movement about two years ago.

"The IRUF could mount cross border operations from Liberia and disrupt the elections if they don't go the way they want", said the senior RSLAF officer.

Recolonisation charge

President Charles Taylor of Liberia has accused Britain of trying to "recolonise" its former territory.

He feels persecuted by an international community that has put his regime under sanctions because Liberia is accused of trading in smuggled "blood diamonds" from Sierra Leone.

London rejects the recolonisation charge, saying it has been backing an internationally-recognised, elected government against rebels (or former rebels) who committed widespread atrocities against civilians during the decade-long war.

Britain also says it may scale down its military operations if the elections go peacefully and Sierra Leone remains stable.

'Welcome British'

The British are so closely integrated into the Sierra Leone forces that some wear RSLAF insignia.

British officers do not just hold advisory positions - some of them occupy key positions within the hierarchy of the west African force.

West Africa Correspondent Mark Doyle interviews an RSLAF Captain in eastern Sierra Leone
Mark Doyle interviews an RSLAF captain in eastern Sierra Leone

The British role is broadly popular among Sierra Leonean civilians.

When I visited the village of Jagbwema, 20 kilometres west of Kainkordu, the villagers had lined up to sing "Welcome British, welcome British".

In other countries this would seem to a visiting journalist staged propaganda.

In Sierra Leone it is not; the people are disillusioned with a decade of war run by corrupt politicians on all sides and prosecuted by a traditionally rag-tag, disloyal army.

The situation was so bad before the British and the UN intervened that in a recent poll most Freetown residents said they would welcome recolonisation.

Exit strategy sought

This reality presents a dilemma for the British government.

Although Tony Blair's administration was happy to intervene two years ago, it is now looking for some sort of exit strategy as it does not want to create complete dependence on the British forces.

The British first intervened for a variety of reasons - and not just for the love of Sierra Leone.

They wanted to demonstrate to their European partners that they could "project" military power overseas.

But many Sierra Leoneans now fear that a reduction in the British military presence - which sooner or later there will be - could leave them at the mercy of their own unreliable politicians and traditionally unreliable army, which has in the past mounted coups and behaved little better than the rebels.

The British-trained Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces will have a lot to live up to when the British finally leave.

See also:

13 Jan 02 | Africa
Last Sierra Leone rebels disarm
19 Oct 01 | Correspondent
Blood diamonds
03 Jan 02 | Africa
War crimes court for Sierra Leone
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