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Western Press Review: Sierra Leone Still Main Focus

Prague, 12 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary continues to focus on the crisis in the West African nation of Sierra Leone. Analysts assess the United Nations' failed peacekeeping mission and the prospects for Sierra Leone and other African nations. There are also comments on yesterday's decision by the Council of Europe not to suspend Russia's membership because of its human-rights record in Chechnya and on Moscow's alleged support of an armed Uzbek militant Islamic group.

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Africa's conflicts now feed on themselves

In a commentary on Sierra Leone in Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Michael Birnbaum writes: "The formula for condemning a UN peace mission to failure is simple: Take an African bush war and, after years of slaughter in contempt of human life, elect a president democratically." Then, he continues, "if the rebels go on fighting -- and especially if they are successful -- force the new president to appoint the rebel leader as vice president and cave in to all the new man's demands -- [including handing] him control of the country's sole source of income, its diamond mines."

"At that point," Birnbaum says, "comes the UN mission [with] badly trained and equipped soldiers from the Third World for the task of monitoring this 'peace agreement' in a war-torn country. That," he argues, "is what has been happening in Sierra Leone. The result is [the current fighting in] the capital of Freetown."

Birnbaum then asks: Why have the UN missions in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in Africa failed? He says that two basic factors were at work: "First, since the end of the East-West confrontation, African conflicts no longer have 'godfathers' like the U.S. and the USSR. [So the old] system of political as well as military controls has fallen away. Africa's conflicts now feed on themselves. That," he adds, "is why -- and this is the second factor -- the UN intervenes time and again by backing one side or the other."

ECONOMIST: It begins to look as though the world might just give up on the entire continent

Britain's weekly Economist (date May 13) writes of the Sierra Leone disaster and other failures on the continent in an editorial titled "Hopeless Africa." The magazine says: "The UN peacekeeping mission [in Sierra Leone has] degenerated into a shambles, calling into question the outside world's readiness to help end the fighting not just in Sierra Leone but in any of Africa's dreadful wars. Indeed," the magazine adds, "since the difficulties of helping Sierra Leone [seem] so intractable -- and since Sierra Leone [seems] to epitomize so much of the rest of Africa, it [begins] to look as though the world might just give up on the entire continent."

The editorial goes on to say that all is clearly "not well" in Africa. It writes: "Since January, Mozambique and Madagascar have been deluged by floods, Zimbabwe has succumbed to government-sponsored thuggery, and poverty and pestilence continue unabated. Most seriously, wars still rage from north to south, from east to west."

The Economist then argues: "No-one can blame Africans for the weather, but most on the continent's shortcomings owe less to acts of God than to acts of man. These acts," it says, "are not exclusively African -- brutality, despotism and corruption exist everywhere -- but African societies, for reasons buried in their culture, seem especially susceptible to them."

NEW YORK TIMES: There will be no lasting peace in Sierra Leone until the diamond trade is brought under legitimate control

In its editorial on the Sierra Leone war, the New York Times says: "The United Nations was handed what now appears to have been an impossible mission, assigned to keep a false peace. It is clear that the rebels' leader, Foday Sankoh, cynically exploited the July 1999 peace agreement in order to rearm and enrich himself through diamond smuggling. He now appears determined to seize power."

The paper continues: "The existing peace agreement will have to be reconsidered. Its central flaws were an amnesty granted to Sankoh and his confederates for war crimes, and his inclusion in a transitional government in a post that gave him authority over Sierra Leone's lucrative diamond trade." It concludes: "There will be no lasting peace in Sierra Leone until the diamond trade is brought under legitimate control and Sankoh is held accountable for war crimes."

WASHINGTON POST: UN member-states owe it to the citizens of Sierra Leone to explore all options

A commentary in the Washington Post by Dutch analyst Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl asks: "Should we privatize the peacekeeping [in Africa]?" He writes: "With the UN's mission to Sierra Leone floundering -- and Western nations even more reluctant to contribute troops -- there is a need for some alternative way to undertake peacekeeping in Africa. One such solution," he says, "may be found in the role that the South Africa-based private military company Executive Outcomes, [or] EO, played in Sierra Leone from May 1995 to January 1997."

The commentator argues: "EO's operations in Sierra Leone stand in stark contrast to those of the UN. The status of the [UN's] current mission is being seriously questioned after the deaths of at least four peacekeepers and the capture of hundreds more. At an estimated cost of $260 million over six months, [that amounts to] a very expensive mission gone wrong." In contrast, says Schulhofer-Wohl, "in the 21 months that it was in Sierra Leone, EO's costs were just $35 million. In that same time period, EO was able to drive back Revolutionary United Front (RUF) troops from around the capital, Freetown, retake key mines from the RUF and destroy the RUF's headquarters."

He concludes: "It will be a sad testament to the lack of will in the international community if the rebel RUF is able to bring down UN peacekeeping in Africa. UN member-states owe it to the citizens of Sierra Leone -- at the very least -- to explore all their options, including private military companies."

NEUE ZUERCHER ZEITUNG: The soul of the Council of Europe has died

Among other comments today, Switzerland's Neue Zuercher Zeitung is strongly critical of yesterday's announcement by the Council of Europe that it will retain Russia as a member despite Russia's poor human-rights record in Chechnya and despite the castigation of Russia by the Council's own Parliamentary Assembly. The paper says the Council's Committee of Ministers has thereby given up any chance of the pan-European organization "regaining its credibility."

The editorial goes on: "The 41 member-governments did not entirely show their cards, but they clearly discarded the last semblance of [Council respectability]. The ministers from the organization's larger states [did not even bother to attend the meeting]," it notes, "but their permanent representatives in Strasbourg sang a paean of praise [to Russia]. The representatives claimed that Moscow has taken measures to allay the Council's concerns over Chechnya."

"So," the paper asks rhetorically, "did the Parliamentary Assembly simply waste its time two months ago in gathering enough votes to recommend the suspension of Russia's [Council] membership?" It concludes: "The soul of the Council of Europe has died, 51 years and one week after its birth. The body -- an organization with thousands of activities -- may continue to exist. But its political weight -- and with it, its moral bases -- have now expired."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: Uzbek Islamist guerrillas may have become a useful tool in Russian hands

In a commentary for the Wall Street Journal Europe, U.S. analyst Vladimir Socor writes: "A roving band of expatriate Uzbek Islamist guerrillas may have become a useful tool in the hands of the world's most vocal denouncers of 'Islamic terrorism.'" He means Russia, and he goes on: "Last week, the Russian military in Tajikistan and an obedient Tajik government made a deal with that band, allowing it to rejoin the bulk of its armed supporters -- the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU -- inside northern Afghanistan. From there," Socor says, "the IMU leaders openly threaten to mount incursions into Uzbekistan, their homeland across the border. They could not have done that from their remote sanctuaries in eastern Tajikistan."

The commentator argues that "the grant of free passage to the armed column across the Tajik-Afghan border -- watched by thousands of Russian troops -- [flies] in the face of Moscow's anti-terrorist rhetoric. Moreover, Russia recently signed cooperation agreements with Uzbekistan, specifically directed against terrorism. Then," he goes on, "there are the recent statements by top Russian officials threatening preventive military strikes against 'terrorists' in Afghanistan. So why," he asks, "are they virtually escorting the armed IMU into that country?"

Socor suggests that Moscow may see its interest lying not in Central Asian security, but rather in what he calls "a high sense of insecurity." He says: "[By] pushing toward a regional security system in Central Asia under Russian leadership, [Moscow] would undermine [the five Central Asian countries'] independence more than rebel groups ever could on their own. Perhaps, though, this is precisely the purpose the IMU has now been positioned unwittingly to serve."