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British Flex Their Muscles Off Coast of Sierra Leone

Africa: War-weary residents eagerly await aid. They hope for protection that they say U.N. has failed to provide.

May 23, 2000|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ABOARD THE HMS OCEAN OFF FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — The British are coming--at least for a while--and most people in this faded former colony in West Africa couldn't be happier.

About 700 elite amphibious troops flexed their muscles Monday on a British helicopter warship patrolling nine miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. Jet fighters zipped overhead. Attack helicopters hummed across the flight deck. And in the operations center below, an admiral flown in from London mapped out strategy with his commanders.

"We are all ready and worked up," Lt. Col. Andy Salmon said. "We are keen to do whatever task comes our way."

The display of military readiness comes just days before the Royal Marines are expected to get the go-ahead from the British government to move ashore, where 700 paratroopers set up positions two weeks ago. It was played before a contingent of mostly British and Sierra Leonean journalists, with the idea of winning over both national audiences.

By most accounts, it was an easy sell. The 10,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone is viewed here as an abysmal failure. Even the notoriously sensational British tabloids sent reporters to cover the new arrivals, quizzing lovesick crew members about their honeys back home.

"It is very impressive that Britain is doing all of this for our little country," said Joshua Nicol, who covered the maritime show for the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service. "It really makes us feel that the British are behind us."

Just last year, big Western governments such as Britain and the United States were criticized for caring too much about places such as Kosovo and too little about places such as Sierra Leone.

A civil war that started here in 1991 has been one of the most brutal in Africa, with the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, terrorizing residents by hacking off limbs, kidnapping girls as sex slaves and forcing young boys into military service.

Humanitarian assistance has been forthcoming from NATO countries--about 70% of Sierra Leone's budget comes from foreign donations--but military engagement was not deemed an option. Even today, the U.S. government is unwilling to commit troops here or elsewhere in Africa, instead pledging $20 million to the U.N. mission in Sierra Leone in support of the government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

The memory of Somalia, where 18 U.S. troops were killed in 1993, remains too strong.

Amphibious Force Will Relieve Paratroops

Until the recent arrival of United Nations peacekeepers, a regional force of Nigerians and troops from Sierra Leone's other West African neighbors was left to stop the atrocities on the ground. Success was limited.

Britain's amphibious combat force from the Ocean and seven other naval vessels at sea would join--and ultimately relieve--a battalion of British paratroops, who have been stationed at the Lungi International Airport outside Freetown, the capital, for the past two weeks.

The Spearhead Battalion had arrived in a great rush to evacuate British and other European citizens when it looked as if rebels would overrun Freetown. The RUF has since been pushed back, but the British troops stayed on--becoming instant heroes in a country starved for peace, stability and something worthy of celebration.

"Since they have been here, the confidence of the entire population has zoomed up," said presidential spokesman Sefimus Kaikai. "We are most happy indeed that they are here."

British defense officials are careful not to overstate their new role. They insist that there will be no mission creep, even though they long ago completed their original task of rescuing their citizens.

Troops Eager to Help Restore Stability

The deployment is nothing like the NATO operation in Kosovo. The only long-term formal commitment so far has been to provide 90 military advisors and equipment to train Sierra Leone's army. The British government is still mulling over a request from the Kabbah government for arms and ammunition.

Yet troops on board the Ocean on Monday said they hoped that their presence here would answer some of the so-called Kosovo critics.

Several troops confessed to having not known where Sierra Leone is on a map before they set sail from the Mediterranean two weeks ago. But they were well aware of the perceived unfairness of rich armies coming to the rescue of Europeans in trouble but leaving Africans to fend for themselves.

"On the ground, there is a huge sense of mission and willingness to help," said John Louth, a Royal Air Force squadron leader. "There is a sense that the people of Sierra Leone have been badly treated. Our soldiers who have seen Sierra Leone are hugely touched by what they have found."

Marine Shawn Roberts, 26, left his newborn son in Plymouth, England, to join the deployment.

"To me, it was a clear humanitarian issue after seeing what the rebels have been doing," Roberts said.

Countries Share a Long History

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