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Sierra Leone: UN Gets Boost But Challenges Loom

The latest reports say more than 150 UN peacekeepers have been freed by rebels in Sierra Leone and that rebel forces are now losing ground. But major questions loom about the fate of the rebel leader, the future of a peace agreement, and the ability of the United Nations to adjust to its latest peacekeeping crisis. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 16 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The UN's top peacekeeping official says UN forces in Sierra Leone are gaining strength while insurgent rebel fighters are beginning to lose ground.

Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Bernard Miyet told reporters on 15 May that the rebel Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, is now on the defensive and appears to be demoralized. He said UN troops have played an important role in protecting the capital, Freetown, from the rebels and the peacekeepers have shown more resolve than given credit for.

Government troops and allied militia have combined to push the rebels further east in the country. And hundreds of British paratroopers in Freetown have played an important role in defending the international airport and helping to transport and supply UN peacekeepers.

But the RUF still holds about 350 peacekeepers hostage and has control of significant areas of Sierra Leone. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on 15 May said all of Sierra Leone needs to be brought under control of the central government. He said the rebels' practice of using diamonds to finance their military activities needs to be stopped.

"I think what is important is that all the territory in Sierra Leone be brought under government control and administration, and the exploitation of diamonds and the diamond industry organized in a proper professional and well-managed manner. This obviously is going to take time, but the objective would be to bring all that under government control."

But challenges confront the United Nations in many areas. The whereabouts of RUF leader Foday Sankoh is unknown, making it difficult to try to deal with the rebels and clouding the prospects for a resumption of the country's peace agreement signed last year.

As part of the peace deal, Sankoh was given a ministerial-level post that put him in charge of the diamond industry. After rebels turned on UN peacekeepers earlier this month, it was speculated that they were concerned about losing control of the diamond-producing areas.

The peace deal with Sankoh has been widely criticized, and many analysts argue against any further negotiation with him. Sankoh's RUF is notorious for amputating the limbs of civilians who help the government's forces. UN peacekeeping chief Miyet said Sankoh may be losing credibility both inside the RUF and in the international community.

In his comments Monday, Miyet sought to mitigate criticism of the performance of the UN mission in Sierra Leone. The mission -- now 9,000 members strong -- has been portrayed in news reports as inexperienced and ill-equipped after the RUF seized about 500 of its members and their arms and vehicles.

Miyet said there is still a lack of information about the seizure of the peacekeepers, most of them Zambians. But he said not enough has been told about the resolve of Kenyan and Indian peacekeepers, who held their positions after being surrounded. He said the UN presence has helped ensure that there hasn't been a resumption of attacks on civilians.

Miyet noted that it is mostly developing countries, not major powers, who are helping to stabilize the situation in Sierra Leone by contributing peacekeepers. India on Monday announced it is sending more than 1,600 reinforcements to Sierra Leone, doubling its participation.

"From the first day, the governments of Bangladesh, India and Jordan decided not only to maintain their troops but to commit new troops. I would say that in terms of resolve, in terms of support of these countries, here too, I think [these] are some lessons we have to take in mind. "

Miyet briefed the UN Security Council in a closed session on Monday and said he found support there for the UN efforts so far.

Britain's UN Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock said there is "a lot of understanding" within the council for the difficulties the troop-contributing countries had to face following the breakdown of the peace agreement. Greenstock said perhaps the council will determine it should make a greater commitment to large missions like Sierra Leone.

"We have to examine in the future -- as the secretary-general has made very clear -- whether we, in a situation of that fragility, should not go in heavier from the beginning. And I'm sure that will come out of the lessons learned on Sierra Leone."

UN officials have said the Sierra Leone mission was hampered by poor financing. As of April 30, UN member states owed more than $2 billion to the peacekeeping budget.

The United States, as the biggest proportional contributor to the budget, owes the largest share. An overall U.S. assessment of UN reforms is linked to the payment of U.S. dues and has slowed the payment process this year.