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Sierra Leone: UN Risks Its Credibility As Situation Unravels

As the situation in Sierra Leone deteriorates, concern is growing over the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping. UN officials still hope they can salvage the peace agreement in the country, but there appears to be no major deterrent to Sierra Leone's armed rebels. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 9 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Amid a sense of frustration and foreboding, the United Nations has appealed to African nations and the world community to help defuse hostilities in the western African nation of Sierra Leone.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday (Monday) called on leaders of the region to prevent the movement of rebels from their countries to Sierra Leone. And Annan said in a statement that a rapid reaction force may be needed in the country to restore order and get the peace process on track.

The appeal came as the UN transferred hundreds of civilian staff out of Sierra Leone and sought to confirm the whereabouts of about 500 peacekeepers. All are believed to be held hostage by the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said yesterday that withdrawal of the peacekeeping force is a possible option if the situation gets too unwieldy. But he also noted the UN mission in the country is authorized to use force to protect itself and the population of Sierra Leone:

"Rapidly, the situation appears to be moving in the wrong direction. How far it will go, what our eventual reaction will be, remains to be seen. But we are coping with it first by political means and then militarily we're trying to stabilize things to the extent we can on the ground."

Eckhard said four West African leaders -- from Mali, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea -- met yesterday in the Guinean capital of Conakry together with the UN special representative in Sierra Leone, Oluyemi Adeniji of Nigeria.

Today, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo plans a larger meeting of regional leaders in the capital, Abuja. The chief UN peacekeeping official, Bernard Miyet, is on his way to the region.

Meanwhile, the United Nations is trying to reinforce its peacekeeping force -- currently at 8,700 troops -- with about 2,500 more soldiers. The U.S. was considering a UN request to provide air transport for some of the troops.

The UN blames the instability in Sierra Leone on the RUF rebels under the leadership of Foday Sankoh. But Sankoh denies his forces are responsible for taking peacekeepers hostage in the east of the country.

Sankoh signed a peace agreement last July with Sierra Leone's democratically elected president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. The accord provides Sankoh with amnesty within the country for war crimes his forces committed, including the RUF soldiers' practice of chopping off the hands, arms, and legs of civilians. The agreement also gave the RUF eight cabinet posts, including the control of important diamond mines.

Some diplomats and others familiar with the situation in Sierra Leone say Sankoh is capitalizing on a security vacuum caused by the recent departure of Nigerian troops from the country. They say Sankoh -- who is believed to have about 6,000 armed followers -- was able to take advantage of inexperienced and ill-equipped UN troops.

UN spokesman Eckhard told reporters the peacekeepers are using poor communications equipment, which has led to confusion about rebel positions and potential hostage situations. Eckhard blamed a badly strained peacekeeping budget for some of the problems experienced so far:

"We're doing peacekeeping these days on a shoestring [that is, with very little financial support]. Our infrastructure to launch peacekeeping operations and sustain them has been cut back through the mid-90s and, frankly, governments have not given us the strength we need here at headquarters to do the kind of professional job we would like to do."

Analysts of UN operations point to this lack of funding, and a lack of political will by the world's leading powers, as chief causes of UN failures in Africa. Other examples in recent years include Somalia and Angola -- still largely failed states -- as well as the inability of the UN to prevent the genocide in Rwanda.

As attention focuses on another African crisis, questions are being raised about the will of world powers to support UN peacekeeping missions capable of operating in all regions of the world. That appears doubtful to Jeffrey Laurenti, director of policy studies at the U.S.'s United Nations Association, an independent organization focusing on UN issues.

Laurenti says the UN's credibility is at risk in Sierra Leone but that it will not likely receive major assistance from the Western powers. Laurenti says major peacekeeping operations in the Balkans have benefited from the close proximity to Europe. Africa, he says, does not rank as an urgent priority:

"The militarily capable and wealthy countries were willing to sink substantial resources into Kosovo -- where nobody's hands were being chopped off or feet being chopped off [as in Sierra Leone] -- but they just have no interest in getting sucked into a similar kind of peacekeeping intervention in sub-Saharan Africa."

But Laurenti says there may be alternatives to dealing with the Sierra Leone rebels effectively. He points to recent controls put into place on international diamond exchanges that have helped cut off an important source of revenues for the leaders of Angola's UNITA rebels. Laurenti says a similar targeting of diamond sanctions could also hurt rebels led by Sankoh, who relies on diamonds to arm his forces.