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Sunday, 14 May, 2000, 01:22 GMT 02:22 UK
UK ships near Sierra Leone
British paras
Freetown is "calm" under the watch of UK troops
The first ship of a six-vessel British taskforce has been moving into position off the coast of war-torn Sierra Leone.

The frigate HMS Argyll will provide communications support to the 600 British paratroopers on the ground in the west African country.

Hundreds of Royal Marines are also due in the region on board warships HMS Ocean and HMS Illustrious.

Meanwhile the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has praised the deployment of British forces.

Kofi Annan - UN Secretary General
Kofi Annan: Profound gratitude
In a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mr Annan said the troops had had a "critical impact" on the situation.

Although violence is continuing, rebel forces appear to have withdrawn from several key positions near the capital, Freetown, and the British high commissioner says the city is quiet.

In a letter dated 12 May, Mr Annan told Mr Blair the troops had provided vital support and relief to the UN peacekeeping force, UNAMSIL.

Mr Annan writes: "Their presence in the theatre has already had a critical impact, not only by relieving UNAMSIL forces in certain positions and supporting them in others, but also by providing a robust and reassuring presence at a time of great danger to the people of Sierra Leone."

Lead role

BBC correspondent Jeremy Cooke says the British Army is playing such a lead role in the defence of Sierra Leone it is practically commanding the government's army.

The Argyll, which is the Royal Navy's west Africa guard ship, will be joined off Sierra Leone by aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious and helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, carrying 800 Royal Marines, along with three smaller vessels.

British troops
The role of the British troops in Sierra Leone has been extended
An MoD spokesman said: "The ships are moving into the region and will gather off Sierra Leone, but you won't see the Illustrious or Ocean close in to the shore.

"We cannot say at this stage whether anyone will be going ashore."

Troops would only be called for if a British commander on the ground decided they were needed, he added.

Paratroopers landed in Freetown on Monday to secure the evacuation of British citizens from the city.

They are now expected to stay for a month to allow UN peacekeepers to continue receiving reinforcements and supplies.

Conflict concern

The British High Commissioner in Sierra Leone, Alan Jones, told the BBC that UK troops were now "very visible" on the streets of Freetown.

He added that at present, the capital was "calm", but that rumours about attacks by RUF rebels were rife.

Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Menzies Campbell, has expressed further concern that British troops could become embroiled in the conflict.

"Supposing a company of Zambians or Kenyans gets cut off and needs assistance and the commanding officer asks the UN for help," he said.

Downing Street demonstration
Hundreds demonstrated outside Downing Street

"A senior UN officer may well say: `You are the nearest - for God's sake, go and help, or we may lose 150 men'.

"British troops would have to help in that case, and once they had done it once, the precedent would have been established."

Meanwhile, a group of Sierra Leoneans have staged a demonstration outside Downing Street to protest at atrocities carried out by rebels.

They want British troops to remain in Sierra Leone until the population is safe, and are also calling on the government to put more pressure on the international community to help.

Hassan Omolaja, one of the joint organisers of the demonstration, said: "We want to thank the government of the UK for the support they have given to the military forces in Sierra Leone.

"But we are asking them, as one of the leading countries in the Security Council, not to pull the troops out until people are safe."

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See also:

13 May 00 | Africa
Rebel leader 'plotting coup'
13 May 00 | Africa
Above Sierra Leone's front line
11 May 00 | Africa
UN bolsters Freetown defences
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