By Lansana FofanaIPS
Fabruary 24, 2003
A total of 300 soldiers from the British Royal Gurkha Rifles have arrived in Sierra Leone's capital to shore up security, which many believe is hanging in the balance.
''This deployment will demonstrate to all, the UK government's commitment to supporting the peace process in Sierra Leone and our ability to conduct such deployments rapidly,'' says Adrian Freer, Commander of the British-led International Military Advisory and Training Team (IMATT).
The Gurkhas arrived on Friday and are now being deployed at the Benguema military training centre east of Freetown. Some will be spread across the country and along the country's porous border with Liberia, the IMATT commander told IPS.
The British Gurkhas arrive at a time when the security situation remains volatile, with an earlier attack on a military garrison by unknown armed men, the mysterious disappearance of the former junta leader Johnny Paul Koroma, who is being accused of plotting to destabilise the state and rumours of a pending attack on the capital by dissident forces.
The deployment follows an agreement between the government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and the British government with the aim of conducting joint military exercises and training the Sierra Leonean army in equipment use, field manoeuvres and logistic support training.
This is not the first time that the Gurkhas are coming to Sierra Leone. In 2001, the Gurkhas were in Sierra Leone helping to retrain the national army and a year earlier, they along with thousands of regular British troops, helped shore up the government, which was on the brink of collapse, after rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) attempted to topple it.
''This is welcome news,'' remarked Amara Sesay, an amputee victim of the war. ''The British troops are the real antidotes of the rebels.'' British special forces dislodged a notorious rebel militia, known as the Westside Boys, who were holding more than a dozen British troops hostage, in 2000.
They also helped stabilise the ailing security situation at the time. The British Defence Minister Lord Bach said that the troops are sent to Sierra Leone to support the former British colony in the face of potential destabilising war between rebels and government troops in neighbouring Liberia.
Over the past month, more than 250 Liberian combatants have crossed into Sierra Leone creating more panic for the war-weary citizenry. This adds up to the fear that Koroma and some of his supporters may be planning something sinister as revealed by the police who have arrested and interrogated more than 50 suspects. The heightened tension follows an attack on a military garrison east of Freetown last month by unknown gunmen. Security has now been stepped up in many parts of the country in anticipation of an imminent attack.
''I don't trust our security forces,'' remarks Philip Sandy, a civil servant in the capital. ''These were the same people who wrecked havoc on the population, so I prefer the British to take over our security.'' The Sierra Leonean army is in the process of restructuring but its credibility is largely doubted by citizens because of the role they played during the decade-long civil war that ended in 2001.
Many changed sides and aided rebel forces. In the meantime, intellectual elements in the society are questioning the new agreement between the two sides, citing the experiences in Kenya where British military forces left behind death and destruction.
''Why do they chose Sierra Leone and what guarantees are there that they will not end up leaving behind unexploded ordinances and limbless people,'' asks Francis Kamara, a military analyst, referring to bombs the British left behind in northern Kenya, which became a subject of a court case last year.
Government officials too, not quite comfortable with their own armed forces, are jubilating at the arrival of the Gurkha troops. But whether the troops are in Sierra Leone in anticipation of potential disaster is yet unclear.
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