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Iain Duncan Smith MP
"Clear rules of engagement are needed"
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Menzies Campbell MP
"The UK forces should be wearing blue berets"
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The BBC's Jeremy Cooke
"The task force is in full strength"
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Monday, 15 May, 2000, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
UK troops 'won't be dragged into war'
Paras on duty
Fears over "mission creep" for UK troops in Sierra Leone
The UK has insisted again that its troops will not be dragged into the conflict in Britain's former west African colony of Sierra Leone.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon told MPs that the work of British forces in the troubled country had been an "outstanding success", but they would not take on a combat role.

Geoff Hoon, Defence Secretary
Geoff Hoon: UK troops will respond "robustly" if attacked
And he indicated that troops would stay in the area for a month while the UN force was reinforced to around 11,000.

The Commons statement was an attempt to end concerns surrounding the UK's involvement in Sierra Leone amid fears of British troops sliding into combat through "mission creep".

His comment came as rebels in Sierra Leone released some of the 500 UN peacekeepers they had been holding hostage.

About 140 were freed at the border with neighbouring Liberia and were all reported to be in good health.

It was the capture of the UN personnel two weeks ago that triggered a series of violent incidents resulting in the unravelling of the fragile peace deal signed between the rebels and the government in the Togolese capital, Lome, last July.

'Volatile' situation

Mr Hoon said UK troops have been effective in evacuating around 450 British nationals and others from the area and securing Lungi airport near the capital Freetown, which had allowed for the reinforcement of the UN force with some 300 Jordanian personnel arriving.

He said: "We would expect that once the UN mission has been reinforced....our role at the airport would no longer be required.

"There is no question of the UK taking over the UN mission or of being drawn into the civil war.

"This remains the clear and unambiguous position on the deployment of British troops."

He said the presence of UK forces in the area had helped to stabilise the "volatile" situation in Sierra Leone and congratulated troops for their work.

Mr Hoon said the Royal Navy taskforce gave land forces "vital flexibility".

And he said troops had clear rules of engagement and would respond "robustly" if attacked - but would stay in the area "no longer than is necessary".

Mr Hoon told MPs that the UN and Sierra Leone forces had retaken the initiative and that "for the moment the rebels appear to be on the back foot."

He said the UK had received reports that a number of UN personnel held by rebels had been released and he understood that one, British officer Major Andrew Harrison, was fit and well and under the protection of an Indian battalion in the east of Sierra Leone.

Shadow defence secretary Iain Duncan Smith said British troops in Sierra Leone needed clearer rules of engagement.

Blue berets

And he said "serious questions" remained about the government's handling of the mission, saying Foreign Secretary Robin cook had "been less than frank throughout this whole deployment".

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat's defence spokesman, has called for British troops to have a clearer and closer role to the UN peacekeepers, saying that there was no reason why they should not be wearing "blue berets".

paratroop in Freetown
Freetown residents want UK troops to stay
"The arrival of the British troops has led to an obvious and immediate change in morale for the UN forces," he told the BBC.

"We should be willing to commit forces for a considerable period so long as there are sufficiently robust rules of engagement."

Speaking in Sierra Leone on Sunday, the UK's top military officer, Sir Charles Guthrie, stressed that the forces were there for a pre-determined plan and were "not part of the UN".

He said that he expected the UN force to be fully reinforced by mid-June, allowing British troops to withdraw.

A task force of British warships carrying 800 Royal Marine commandos remains off the coast but there are no plans for the soldiers to land.

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See also:

15 May 00 | Africa
UN confirms troops' release
15 May 00 | Africa
UN troops 'freed'
14 May 00 | Africa
Rebels lose Sierra Leone town
13 May 00 | Africa
Above Sierra Leone's front line
11 May 00 | Africa
UN bolsters Freetown defences
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