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Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon
"The troops are fulfilling their function"
 real 28k

Clare Short MP, Sec. of State for International Devt
"We want to look to a stable and properly governed Sierra Leone"
 real 28k

Monday, 22 May, 2000, 09:03 GMT 10:03 UK
Sierra Leone mission 'unchanged'
A British military helicopter over Sierra Leone
On patrol: British forces in Sierra Leone
Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has denied that the UK's mission in Sierra Leone has been changed after British troops were spotted working outside of the capital Freetown.

Speaking after rebel forces freed more of the United Nations peacekeepers that they had been holding as hostages, Mr Hoon said that the forces' mandate detailed to Parliament remained the same.

A British marine on a beach in Sierra Leone
Ministers say forces have clear mission
But he added that the government was still considering a request from Sierra Leone's government for funding to take the war to the rebels.

The freeing of the hostages came as thousands of UN reinforcements prepared to fly to Sierra Leone after Secretary-General Kofi Annan demanded urgent action against the rebels.

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Hoon said that until those forces arrived, British troops would at times be operating outside of the capital's airport which they had secured to allow the evacuation of civilians.

"The role has not changed at all," he said. "What the Foreign Secretary told Parliament was that we would hold the airport and allow for the reinforcement of the United Nations contingent in Sierra Leone.

"The troops are fulfilling the essential function of protecting the airport."

This would continue to mean troops securing major roads near to or leading to the airport as well as its immediate area, he said.

Turning to the request for arms, Mr Hoon said: "We had a request from President Kabbah of Sierra Leone that we should consider that, and that is precisely what we are doing.

"This is a matter we are looking at, we will consider it very carefully, and obviously make an appropriate decision in time."

Mr Hoon said that he recognised that there were fears that the British government would be seen as fueling the war by supplying arms.

But he added: "At the same time, of course, President Kabbah was democratically elected.

"He's faced one of the most brutal rebel forces that modern history has seen ... we would obviously want to make sure that we take the right decision given the request that we have received."

Rapid reaction

If the mission remained on target, said Mr Hoon, British troops would be beginning to pull out of Sierra Leone within "two to three weeks".

President Kabbah of Sierra Leone
President Kabbah: Appeal to UK
But he stressed that there were no plans at the moment for the UK to form the core of a rapid reaction force for Sierra Leone, a military unit proposed by Mr Annan.

"Obviously we would treat his request seriously, but there are no plans for Britain to form any part of such a rapid reaction force, nor indeed to form any part of the combat troops that the UN has deployed in Sierra Leone."

Nearly 300 Indian and Jordanian peacekeepers are expected to arrive on Monday and Tuesday, and preparations are under way for the deployment of about 3,000 west African soldiers.

The UN said the group of peacekeepers released comprised 42 Zambian and 10 Kenyan soldiers, as well as two military observers - one Malaysian and one Norwegian.

But about 270 more are still unaccounted for - believed to be in the hands of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

A senior UN official in Sierra Leone said that more UN staff were expected to be released shortly.

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22 May 00 | Africa
Rebels free more UN troops
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