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Witness 2000: review of the year Alan Little
INTRO JAN FEB MAR APR JUN JUL AUG SEP OCT NOV DEC
Allan Little on the tragedy of Sierra Leone
Guns montage
May
In this month:
Israel ended its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon. In Sri Lanka, Tamil Tigers fought to the edge of Jaffna town.
The historic Scottish trial of two Libyans accused of the Lockerbie airliner bombing in 1988 opened in The Netherlands.
A baby girl called Astha became Indiaís one billionth citizen.
Half a million women march in Washington for tougher US gun control laws.
Businessman George Speight overthrew Fijiís government in a coup. China struck a trade deal with the European Union.
It was good news for the UKís Prime Minister Tony Blair as his wife, Cherie, gave birth to their fourth child, Leo.
It was bad news for him however, as Labour rebel Ken Livingstone became the first modern era mayor of London. London and Frankfurt stock exchanges announced a merger - it later collapsed. France Telecom bought UK mobile phone company Orange for a rather sizeable £31bn.
Formula One driver David Coulthard suffered only cuts and bruises in an air crash that killed the two pilots.
Panic spread across the internet as the "Love bug" virus attacked systems around the world. Computer glitches of a different kind sparked nationwide emergency calls to hundreds of police officers after a Scottish woman sought advice over a mouldy sausage.
Sir John Gielgud, one of the leading actors of the English speaking world, died, aged 96.
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Sierra Leone's plight
Sierra Leone had suffered years of civil war and misery. But would British troops make a difference? Africa correspondent Allan Little was there as they came ashore.

Read the transcript

It has been a traumatic year for Sierra Leone - and with it a traumatic and, in a way, a make-or-break year for UN peace keeping in Africa.

The year began with thousands of UN troops deployed to keep the peace. By April there was no peace to keep.

The rebel movement known as the Revolutionary United Front - or RUF - took hundreds of peacekeepers hostage in their remote and inaccessible quartering places deep in the bush.

The people of Freetown took to the streets to demonstrate and marched on the house of the rebel leader Foday Sankoh.

Sankoh's body guards panicked and opened fire, killing more than a dozen of the demonstrators.

That was the end of the peace agreement - and it looked very much like the end of a very much discredited UN peace keeping force.

It had shown itself to be incapable of protecting itself, never mind protecting the people of Sierra Leone from another brutal rampage of murder and mutilation by the RUF.

It was the British who stepped in - unexpectedly and decisively - to prevent the collapse into chaos and despair.

A thousand British paratroopers landed in May and secured the airport at Freetown, then the Aberdeen peninsular where the UN headquarters is located.

An expected and much feared rebel assault on Freetown came to nothing. The people of the capital welcomed the British intervention and the British troops as liberating heroes.

It was a measure, almost, of the abject failure of the post-colonial enterprise in this, the post-colonial African state that had collapsed most completely - the welcoming back of troops from the very nation from whom independence had been wrested only forty years earlier.

Many in Freetown began to say that the British should be invited back not only in the military sphere but in the political and administrative spheres as well.

It was extraordinary to hear veterans of the liberation struggle call - not just implicitly but in unmistakable and explicit terms - for the re-colonisation of the country.

The British government in London insisted, at first, that their intervention had been launched only to help British and other foreign nationals escape the country should it descend into renewed conflict.

But on the ground it was immediately clear that something much more profound was happening - something bold, imaginative and extremely risky.

British officers, in effect, were taking command of the Sierra Leone Armed forces and, to all intents and purposes actively running the defence of the country and the fight against the rebels.

British troops began to train the rag-bag, indisciplined ranks of the SLA. The British also equipped them with new rifles and ammunition.

British helicopters flew logistics missions - in effect ferrying arms and ammunition to the front lines. The idea was this.

The British would command the counter offensive against the rebels, arm it and supply, but the Sierra Leonians themselves would fight it.

When the rebels had been pushed off a given piece of territory the UN would move in to secure it.

The British aimed to push the rebels out altogether - and to recapture the vital diamond fields that have been fuelling this war - and which this war is really about - from the beginning.

There were many in the United Kingdom who argued that Britain had no business in intervening in someone else's war.

But one day I followed a patrol of British paratroopers through a makeshift refugee camp in Freetown which is home to hundreds of those whom the RUF and others have mutilated by cutting of arms or legs or sometimes both.

I spoke to one young man who had pleaded with his drug crazed assailants to chop off his left rather than his right hand so that he might continue his studies more easily.

They chopped off both for good measure. Those paratroopers were in no doubt about the moral purpose of their intervention.

They were frustrated only by the back seat nature of their intervention - wanting instead to be allowed to take the battle to the rebels themselves.

For Britain did have an obligation to the people of Sierra Leone.

Britain was one of the principal signatories to the Lome peace agreement the previous year, which had brought the rebel leader into government and which had persuaded the people of Sierra Leone to lay down their own arms.

Britain was one of those countries who said to them - do this, give peace this one chance, and if it fails, the UN will be there to protect you.

When the UN showed that it was incapable of fulfilling that promise, Britain had a simple stark choice - whether to act honourably or dishonourably.

It chose to act honourably.