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Thursday, 11 May, 2000, 16:03 GMT 17:03 UK
Cook faces Sierra Leone dilemma

British troops are evacuating civilians from Freetown
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook is facing a mounting crisis over Britain's role in Sierra Leone.

As the fighting continues between rebels and government forces, with UN peacekeepers caught in the middle, British troops are finding themselves increasingly involved.

Their original mission was to oversee the evacuation of civilians but, as rebel troops continue to advance on Freetown, they are in danger of becoming inextricably embroiled in the conflict.

There are already reports of British troops manning roadblocks on major routes into the capital, and that they are now offering support to the UN peacekeepers.

We risk being sucked into Sierra Leone's civil war.

Francis Maude
Mr Cook and Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon continue to insist that the troops are simply there to help evacuate civilians. And they have ruled out using them in a combat role.

But Mr Cook is now facing the nightmare scenario of seeing his troops coming under rebel fire and having to decide whether or not to respond and escalate the crisis.

He has already been forced to concede that the troops may have to stay in West Africa for weeks, rather than days, in a wider role.

More than 300 UK, EU and Commonwealth citizens have already been evacuated from Freetown but dozens remain, with some having decided to stay.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Francis Maude, speaking in the House of Commons, raised the fear of ever deeper British involvement, stating: "Some officials have said the troops have been sent purely for evacuation purposes.

"Others have said that Britain is deploying troops to shore up a flagging UN operation.

"You have committed the UK to something that is more than an evacuation but less than a full-scale military intervention. As a consequence, we risk being sucked into Sierra Leone's civil war."

'Reviewing situation'

Mr Cook insisted he was not about to send British troops into combat but simply to aid the evacuation.

But he said their very presence in securing Freetown's Lunghi airport made a "real contribution" to the UN effort.

He also said he would be reviewing the situation on a day-to-day basis.

Mr Cook clearly wants to do whatever he can to ensure the UN peacekeeping effort is a success but is not prepared to send in combat troops, even if he could win approval, which is highly unlikely.

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See also:

09 May 00 | Africa
Fear and anger in Freetown
10 May 00 | Africa
Flight to Freetown
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