Global Policy Forum

Britain Doubles Sierra Leone Force, Freetown Cautious Over Ceasefire

November 13, 2000

A Royal Navy taskforce with 500 troops arrived off the Sierra Leone coast yesterday as doubts deepened about the commitment of rebels to a ceasefire signed two days earlier. The Royal Marines on board HMS Ocean will nearly double the size of British forces in Sierra Leone in what Britain describes as a 'show of strength' and commitment. But the government also stresses that the troops will back up UN peacekeepers rather than take on an offensive combat role.

The rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) called the British soldiers mercenaries and said their presence could threaten the ceasefire. But others see the real threat to the truce as the rebels themselves.

The key test of the RUF's commitment to the ceasefire is straightforward enough. If it gives up control of the diamond fields that have fuelled its brutal nine-year war, the end of the conflict could well be within grasp. But the timing of the deal -as the British troops arrived ahead of an expected offensive by the Sierra Leone army on diamond areas - raises suspicions that the rebels are again buying time by manipulating a desperate desire for peace.

The optimists note that the RUF now stands little hope of winning outright; its founding leader, Foday Sankoh, has been captured and the rebels' principal backer, the Liberian president, Charles Taylor, is under growing foreign pressure to end the conflict. And then there is the British presence. Royal Marines are expected to stage an amphibious landing on the beaches of the capital, Freetown, this week, knowing full well that there are plenty of people to report back to the RUF on a revived British commitment.

But sceptics note that the delegation that signed the ceasefire may not represent those who control rebel troops, that the RUF still controls the bulk of the country, and that Mr Taylor has many good financial reasons to keep the war going.

The Sierra Leone government is cautious. It welcomed Friday's ceasefire agreement and the rebels' pledge to demobilise but said that it 'wishes to assure the public that as a result of past experience, it has no intention of relaxing its stance'.

Sierra Leone has travelled this path before. The Lome peace treaty signed in July 1999 gave the RUF seats in government and a general amnesty for the many atrocities in return for the dismantling of its army. But Mr Sankoh wanted total power and used the peace deal as cover while he planned to seize Freetown - until the intervention of 1,000 British troops in May put the rebels on the defensive.

The latest accord keeps open the possibility that the Lome agreement could be revived and the RUF returned to a powersharing government. But there are many issues to be resolved, including the fate of Mr Sankoh, who faces the prospect of trial before an international court for crimes against humanity.

And there are doubts as to what extent the rebels' representative at the latest peace talks, Colonel Jonathan Kposowa, speaks for the fractured RUF leadership. If the diamond fields were the key test, then Col Kposowa was keen to lower expectations. After describing the agreement as a 'stepping stone' and saying it was no guarantee the war is over, he brushed aside the issue of the diamond mines. 'Instead of finding solutions to the problem, they are telling us about diamond, diamond, diamond. I don't think that's the problem,' he said.

The rebels have reason to stall. With the rainy season ending, the Sierra Leone army, under British direction and training, is planning a new offensive. It is still far from being a real army but troop numbers have grown and it is being re- equipped with British guns, lorries, radios and uniforms. Brigadier David Richards, the officer who oversaw the British intervention in May and saw his arguments for an even stronger involvement thwarted by the Foreign Office, has returned to Freetown to coordinate the Sierra Leone army's offensive.

The redeployment of a large British force in Freetown is a recognition that Brig Richard's original strategy against the RUF failed. In May, he laid out a plan to use the Sierra Leone army to attack rebel strongholds, and UN peacekeepers to hold the captured territory as government forces advanced on the diamond fields. But, although the UN force in Sierra Leone is the largest peacekeeping operation in the world with 13,000 troops, it proved incapable even of play ing a reliable backup role. Disagreement between the UN force's Indian commander and senior Nigerian colleagues has ended with the withdrawal of the entire Indian contingent from the operation. A British brigadier is expected to join the UN command in Freetown this week in an attempt to coordinate the peacekeepers and the government army.

Although Whitehall has said that British troops are in Freetown merely as a 'show of strength', it could be that new arrivals will plug a vital gap by providing the logistics, air power and occasional firepower so badly needed if there is to be any prospect of forcing the rebels to give up.

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