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Geoff Hoon, UK Defence Secretary
"We will train the armed forces"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 23 May, 2000, 15:44 GMT 16:44 UK
UK to arm Sierra Leone forces
marine commandos shooting
Royal Marine commandos practise their shots
The UK is to start training, equipping and supporting the Sierra Leone army to turn the tide of the war against the rebels.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said that given the return to violence by the RUF rebels, Britain would be giving the Sierra Leone army access, if needed, and under the supervision of British officers, to stocks of light weapons and ammunition.

President Kabbah has faced one of the most brutal rebel forces that modern history has seen

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon

He said British forces had secured their immediate goal of securing the main airport at Lungi and they planned to continue protecting it to enable British nationals to leave if they wanted.

But he added that the government was now responding to an appeal for military aid from Sierra Leone's President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

Stability aim

Pledging that withdrawal of troops would remain on track, Mr Hoon said that the First Battalion the Parachute Regiment would be replaced by Four-Two Commando Royal Marines as the first part of a plan to remove the bulk of Britain's forces by mid-June.

Marines and paratroopers
Marines and paratroopers return from a patrol
"Our commitment to promoting stability and security in Sierra Leone remains the same," he told MPs. "Our decision to enhance the capability of the Sierra Leone army is an essential element of that."

The UK is expected to send in experts to initially assess the Sierra Leonean army's needs, followed by a larger detachment to bring the country's forces up to strength.

Reports from Sierra Leone suggest the army is beginning to drive back the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

On Monday, Mr Hoon denied that the UK's mission had changed after British troops were spotted working outside the capital, Freetown.

He said President Kabbah had been 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," he said.

Tories: No U-turn

Conservative foreign affairs spokesman Iain Duncan Smith gave a general welcome to the plans.

But he wanted to know whether there was a risk British arms might find their way into rebel hands. "How will they control how these arms are handed out?" he asked.

A British marine on a beach in Sierra Leone
Ministers say forces have clear mission
Mr Duncan Smith said the opposition would support the British armed forces and that the Tories had already offered the government support if the forces' mission were extended.

But he said his party was still worried that without a clear mission and simple tasks "we risk being sucked in to a longer-term engagement which will be chasing events rather than controlling events".

Earlier, Shadow Foreign Secretary Francis Maude denied the party was doing a U-turn over action on Sierra Leone.

He told BBC Radio 4 the government should have been clearer from the start over the forces' role.

"We absolutely understand how the mission has extended in the way it has," he said.

"When you put very fine troops into a situation where there has been some mixed forces previously, they're they're bound to get drawn into doing much more."

Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesman, Menzies Campbell, welcomed the plans but warned the UK should not pull out too soon.

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See also:

22 May 00 | UK Politics
Sierra Leone mission 'unchanged'
23 May 00 | UK Politics
Tories back government on Sierre Leone
23 May 00 | Africa
Rebel deadline prompts fears
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