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Thursday, 1 June, 2000, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
Q&A: Sierra Leone's troubles

United Nations peacekeepers, with crucial British military backing, have helped restore a degree of stability to Sierra Leone in recent months after an abortive peace deal and years of civil war. Rebel leader Foday Sankoh has been captured and his RUF rebels have been pushed back from the capital Freetown. But lawlessness and clashes with rebel groups continue in the countryside and rebels still hold key diamond-producing areas.

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What are British troops doing in Sierra Leone?

Britain first announced it was sending troops to help evacuate foreign nationals as rebels advanced on the capital in May 2000. A peace deal between government and rebels had broken down and rebel forces were scoring successes against the Sierra Leone army and the UN peacekeeping force, some of whose members had been taken hostage. London later announced it would help train and arm the Sierra Leone army, and some 400 British troops remain in the country in a training capacity.

What happened to the UN peacekeeping force?

The UN sent the Unamsil peacekeeping force to Sierra Leone at the beginning of 2000 to oversee the implementation of the 1999 Lome peace accord.

The force was initially bolstered by Nigerian troops, who were there as a follow-up to Ecomog, the West African peace-keeping mission that restored President Kabbah to power in 1998. But their withdrawal in early May exposed the weaknesses of the UN force, which was under-resourced and comprised troops, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, with little experience of working together or of such operations.

British military support for the peacekeepers and the Sierra Leone government army helped to stabilise the situation, crucially securing Lungi airport outside Freetown to allow the UN to bring in more troops. Unamsil is now the biggest UN peacekeeping force in operation, numbering some 13,000. With British troops providing security in the capital, the Sierra Leone army and allied militia groups were able to contain the rebels more effectively. Rebel leader Foday Sankoh was eventually captured and remains in detention.

Why didn't the peace deal work?

The Lome peace accord, signed in July 1999, gave amnesty to rebels who committed widespread atrocities against civilians, in exchange for peace. Human rights organisations criticised the inclusion of the RUF in government, saying the rebels had used killings, rapes and mutilations to gain a place at the negotiating table after nine years of war.

The RUF was recognised as a legal political party, and its leader Foday Sankoh was given a key government post as Chairman of the Strategic Minerals Commission, overseeing the exploitation of the country's diamond wealth.

The UN was mandated to oversee RUF disarmament, but thousands of rebel gunmen remained at large, and the RUF still controlled much of the country.

What were the roots of civil war?

Sierra Leone's civil war was bound up with the struggle for control over the country's vast diamond resources. Years of corruption followed the end of British rule in 1961, as a powerful elite ruled from the capital while the rest of the country remained in poverty. The rural poor grew increasingly resentful, so that when the rebel movement, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was created, there was no shortage of recruits. Its leader, Foday Sankoh, who was trained by the British army, formed an alliance with Liberian rebel militia leader Charles Taylor - now president - and launched the war.

What have been the effects of conflict?

The civil war saw nearly half the country's 4.5 million population displaced. A further 500,000 people were believed to have been displaced in neighbouring countries. At least 50,000 people died in the fighting and there are an estimated 100,000 victims of mutilation. The economy is in ruins and the country's infrastructure has collapsed.

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