UK Rejects Calls To Pull Troops Out of Sierra Leone

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

London ( - The UK government Monday shrugged off opposition calls to withdraw troops from Sierra Leone following a dramatic rescue of soldiers held hostage by a renegade militia, saying more troops may in fact be deployed if needed to protect British soldiers already in the west African country.

Defense Secretary Geoff \plain\lang2057\f4\fs23\cf0 Hoon said security of the force in Sierra Leone would be reviewed to prevent another hostage situation from occurring.

One paratrooper was killed and a dozen more were hurt, one seriously, as they carried out a helicopter-borne dawn raid on the jungle base of the West Side Boys. British officials say 25 rebels were killed in a firefight.

The heavily-armed gang had been holding six UK soldiers and a Sierra Leonean officer hostage for more than two weeks. Hoon said it had repeatedly threatened to kill the captives.

In return for their safe release the militia issued a range of demands the British called "unreasonable," from a renegotiation of a peace deal to give the group a formal role in the country's administration, to freedom for jailed comrades.

Hoon said there was "no question" of pulling out the force now, as demanded by the opposition Conservatives. They would remain in the former British colony until their job - training the government army - was done. He conceded this may be soon, however.

Conservative defense spokesman Iain Duncan Smith welcomed the successful rescue mission, which the party had been calling for even as the government negotiated with the West Side Boys.

But he said British troops in Sierra Leone should either be better protected and be allowed tougher rules of engagement - or they should be withdrawn, a preferred option, and the United Nations peacekeeping force told to get on with carrying out its mandate there.

As long as the British troops were in Sierra Leone, the peacekeepers - whose troubled mission the UK force was initially sent to bolster - seemed to think they could consistently rely on the British efforts.

Duncan Smith said the U.N. peacekeepers had "shown themselves to be just short of pathetic throughout this incident."

Peter Hain, junior Foreign Minister, said the pullout calls were "beneath contempt." British troops would not slink away from Sierra Leone with their tails between their legs, he said.

The six freed hostages are being debriefed Monday to establish how they came to be captured by the militia, a group renowned for its brutality, and which has at various times allied itself with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels and the government.

They and another five soldiers captured at the same time but released by the West Side Boys earlier, were part of a skeleton force of around 350 soldiers left in Sierra Leone after a larger British force left in the summer.

Some of the troops are training the army of the elected Sierra Leone government to withstand further attacks from the RUF, which continues to control sizeable parts of the country. The rest are providing protection for the trainers.

Neither Britain nor the U.S. are participating in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, although both are contributing other ways. The British sent the force in earlier this year to help the U.N. and government, while the U.S. has agreed to train and equip a Nigerian force which will be involved in peacekeeping duties.

The U.N. force, under an Indian general, was sent in to help implement a 1999 peace agreement signed in Lome, capital of Togo. The pact was meant to end a civil war which wracked the country for most of the 1990s, killing tens of thousands of civilians and leaving many more maimed.

But the mission and the peace process almost collapsed last spring when RUF rebels, who were signatories to the accord, captured and held hostage several hundred troops, and renewed attacks against the government army.

In the aftermath of the crisis, the U.N. agreed to expand the force from 13,500 to 20,000 men, although critics have said the quality, rather than the quantity of the force, needs to be improved.

Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, called Monday for Britain to contribute a battalion of troops to the enlarged operation.

The UK government used the opportunity of last week's U.N. millennium summit to propose a radical shake-up of the international organization's peacekeeping operations, including the establishment of a rapid reaction force to respond quickly to international crises.

Britain's relationship with Sierra Leone began in 1787, when it established a refuge there for freed slaves from many parts of the continent. With Freetown as its capital, it became a thriving trading center for English-speaking Africans, known as Creoles.

It became independent in 1961 and a republic in 1971, only to be plagued by instability and a series of coups that culminated in the civil war.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow