Sierra Leone Rebels Free 139 UN Hostages

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

( - Some 139 of the 504 United Nations troops and unarmed military observers seized by Sierra Leone rebels on May 3 have been released into the custody of the government of neighboring Liberia, the U.N. confirmed Monday.

Most of the released captives are believed to be Zambian peacekeepers.

Liberian President Charles Taylor warned that continued attacks by Sierra Leone pro-government forces against the Revolutionary United Front rebels threatened the lives of the remaining U.N. hostages.

Taylor, a close ally of the RUF, has been accused of collaborating with the rebels in large-scale illegal diamond smuggling.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, is being secured by the soldiers loyal to President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, U.N. peacekeepers, and British soldiers initially flown in to evacuate trapped foreign nationals. Fighting continues some 50 miles to the east between pro-government fighters and the RUF rebels.

British warships arrived off the West African coast over the weekend, even as the UK government and military chiefs took pains to emphasize the limited nature of the former colonial power's military involvement.

The British army's chief of staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, said during a one-day visit to Freetown that British troops were supporting and advising U.N. peacekeepers and the Sierra Leone Army, not leading military action against the RUF rebels.

In London, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said he expected the mission to be over in a month, and pointed to the scheduled arrival of 1,400 U.N. reinforcements from Jordan, India and Bangladesh to bring the force up to full strength.

Apart from some 600 paratroopers on the ground, Britain now also has a naval taskforce on hand, comprising an aircraft carrier equipped with Harrier jets and landing craft, a helicopter carrier, a frigate and two support vessels.

The ships also carry 800 Royal Marines. It is not known when, or if, they will be landed.

U.S. dodges 'racism' charge

The State Department has rejected as "not true" allegations that a perceived U.S. reluctance to respond to the crisis in Sierra Leone - in contrast to its heavy involvement in Kosovo last year - was evidence of racism.

Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a press briefing it was considered "easier" to put together peacekeeping forces relying on regional armies.

"Our approach to peacekeeping generally has had a strong regional component ... We have, for several years now, had an effort underway with Africans to have an African Crisis Response group, and we've been working with them and supporting military training and things like that."

Boucher conceded that the American experience in Somalia in the early 1990s had played a part in teaching the "lesson ... that regional peacekeeping can be more effective."

Washington decided to pull out of the Somalia mission after the humiliating downing of one of its helicopters and the loss of several dozen servicemen's lives.

But although the U.S. has declined appeals to contribute troops to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, Boucher denied that the U.S. was not involved.

"We have been working actively with the parties in the region, as well as people outside. We have been providing advice and diplomatic efforts, and we're providing
other kinds of support that we have that other people may not have."

By way of example, he said a U.S. plane was transporting ammunition to Sierra Leone for a Jordanian U.N. component.

He also announced that President Clinton had asked his "special envoy for the promotion of democracy in Africa," Jesse Jackson, to travel to the region "to work with leaders in Africa for a peaceful resolution of this crisis."

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow