Britain and US likely to help Sierra Leone resist rebels




Liberia’s civil war is threatening its neighbour, Mark Huband reports from Freetown

The Guardian, 13 May 1991

BRITAIN and the United States are expected to approve non-lethal military assistance to Sierra Leone, where a multinational force is attempting to repel an invasion by Liberian rebels.

British assistance, which is believed to have been approved by the Foreign Office but is now awaiting Treasury approval, will be limited to logistical support such as maps and maintenance equipment for weaponry.

The US is expected to send transport vehicles, although final approval is not expected for several weeks. The rebels, who are loyal to the Liberian guerrilla leader, Charles Taylor, have pushed up to 100 miles inside Sierra Leone since they invaded on March 23. They received fresh arms supplies from Libya last week.

Their aim is to force Sierra Leone to withdraw from the West African peace-keeping force in Liberia which has prevented Mr Taylor from seizing the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

Sierra Leone’s President, Major-General Joseph Saidu Momoh, appealed to the United States and Britain for assistance more than three weeks ago.

Diplomats in Freetown believe the 2,500-strong Sierra Leone army is not able to repel the rebels unaided. The British aid is regarded by some as totally inadequate in view of Sierra Leone’s record of assisting Nato members.

Despite being one of the poorest countries in Africa, it sent a medical team to the Gulf. It also allowed the Royal Navy to use Freetown as a staging post during the Falklands war.

Sierra Leone was the linchpin in the US effort to evacuate Americans from the Liberian civil war last year. The arrival of a fresh arms shipment from Libya at the rebel-held Liberian port of Buchanan last Thursday has increased the urgency for deploying troops at the border area, diplomats in Freetown said.

Another 1,000 Nigertan troops were expected to be sent to the border at the weekend, to join Nigerian and Guinean troops already there.

An Italian-registered ship, flying the flag of Burkina Faso, which has been the rebels’ main backer during the 17-month Liberian war, was intercepted by West African peacekeeping troops as it was leaving Buchanan. The ship’s captain said he had sailed from Tripoli with goods, including arms, and was returning to Libya with rubber extracted from plantations in rebel territory.

The rebels have sold enormous quantities of goods, particularly rubber and timber, since the port of Buchanan was reopened. The arms supplies, as well as their continued ability to us the Ivory Coast as a supply route for food and access to the outside world, have reduced any pressure there may have been on Mr Taylor to agree to a solution to the Liberian conflict.

About 2,000 Nigerians are believed to be held in rebel territory and Nigeria is expected to take military action soon under the banner of the West African peace-keeping force to speed up the process of negotiation.

Nigeria is bearing the cost of maintaining more than 4,000 troops in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but Ghana recently withdrew a battalion from Liberia, reducing its presence to one battalion. Ghanaian sources have said that Accra would resist a military campaign to destroy Mr Taylor’s rebels.

Washington, which has maintained contacts with both sides throughout the conflict, has expressed a similar view.

More than 400 of the troops fighting the rebel invasion of Sierra Leone are former Liberian troops loyal to their murdered President, Samuel Doe. At the height of the Liberian civil war they committed mass murder against rival tribes.

Senior Doe advisers have had frequent contacts with the former troops, who fled into Sierra Leone last September, when President Doe was killed and they were cut off from the rest of his army, which was encircled in Monrovia.

Sierra Leone has so far not officially acknowledged that Doe troops are fighting as part of the anti-rebel alliance.



© Guardian Newspapers. All rights reserved.