- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2000

NEW YORK Britain began evacuating Westerners from Sierra Leone yesterday, marking the latest embarrassment for a U.N. peacekeeping mission that started badly and deteriorated rapidly.

British troops removed more than 300 mainly European Union and Commonwealth citizens from a hotel in the capital, Freetown, in the face of the threat from a rebel faction that is holding 500 U.N. peacekeepers hostage in the interior.

Other countries and the United Nations ordered nonessential staff and dependents out of the country for fear of renewed war between the government and a vicious rebel army that gained notoriety last year by cutting off the hands of children.

"The U.N. is in a terrible position, because there is no peace" to keep, said one African envoy who asked not to be named. "It is clear that the [rebel force] has no respect for the peace accord, or the United Nations or even the people."

The envoy said the 8,700 peacekeepers in Sierra Leone were too few to deter a rebel force of up to 45,000, whose commitment to a 10-month-old peace deal was fragile at best. Perhaps, he added softly, "the organization should have expected that."

Even U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is embarrassed by the last week's events, which have seen 500 peacekeepers taken hostage by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Foday Sankoh, who eluded detention in the capital.

"Well, obviously, its not an ideal situation," Mr. Annan said Monday night amid rising concern about the ability of the United Nations to run such an operation in anything less than optimal conditions. "Its not the proudest moment of the force."

Despite its embarrassment, the world body is getting more rather than less involved in Sierra Leone. It said yesterday that American and possibly Russian planes were set to ferry in fresh troops and supplies from Bangladesh, India and Jordan.

The situation in Sierra Leone fell apart rapidly after a group of African peacekeepers handed off duties to the blue-helmeted U.N. forces on May 1 10 months after the Security Council authorized the peacekeeping mission called UNAMSIL.

By all accounts, the first days of a new peacekeeping mission are the roughest. Problems with new terrain, logistics and faulty communications are to be expected. But the miscues of the past nine days defy even the most charitable assessments of supportive diplomats.

Two days into the mission, nearly 70 civilian and military personnel had been abducted, and the United Nations reported erroneously it turned out that seven had been killed in fighting with the RUF.

By Friday, rebels had hijacked a convoy of 13 armored personnel carriers, taking another 208 Zambian peacekeepers hostage.

Saturday began with rebels abducting another 200 Zambians, and ended with the United Nations setting off a near panic in Freetown by reporting again erroneously that rebel forces were advancing on the capital. The organization attributed this "embarrassing incident" to an unreliable communications system.

The Zambians had run out of ammunition and were unable to call for more supplies because their radios didn't work, a U.N. source said.

Late Monday, in the chaos of a peace demonstration around his home, U.N. troops appeared to have lost track of Mr. Sankoh, who was supposed to be isolated in his suburban home.

According to wire service reports, the peacekeepers were overwhelmed by the crowds during a melee in which as many as nine persons were killed and another five dozen were injured.

The United Nations, which has shed plenty of blood in Africa over the last decade most notably in Rwanda, Somalia and Angola owns up to at least some of its errors in the field.

But the powerful nations have been slow to contribute troops and supplies, and the peacekeeping budget has been decimated in an unrealistic belief that no major peacekeeping missions would be needed, U.N. officials said.

"We're doing peacekeeping these days on a shoestring," said Fred Eckhard, spokesman for Mr. Annan. He said the U.N. headquarters lost critical expertise last year when member states demanded that unpaid specialists from wealthy Western nations be replaced by a handful of paid personnel who are subject to U.N. hiring cycles.

He also said that battalions are supposed to show up fully armed, outfitted and ready to roll, but many nations are unable to equip their troops. The organization has tried to fly in supplies from its storehouse in Italy, but so far has not succeeded.

"This requires a substantial infrastructure to do the job right. Frankly, we don't have it," Mr. Eckhard said.

The organization did itself no favors with the tense and war-weary citizens of Sierra Leone with its false warning of a pending invasion last weekend. The world body recanted, but not before lending credence to Mr. Sankoh's accusations that the supposedly neutral blue helmets are biased against him.

"We wrongly made the assumption that the RUF elements marched along that road and overtook the Guinean position and then the Jordanian position, which is closer to Freetown," Mr. Eckhard explained.

"As it turns out, the next morning, helicopter reconnaissance showed no RUF elements in Freetown and we had a quiet day Sunday."

Not so in New York.

A crisis group meets daily, the Security Council is following developments, and analysts and diplomats are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the situation.

The Zambian government criticized the United Nations, saying its soldiers had been in Sierra Leone for only three days when they were diverted from their planned sector to assist embattled Indian and Kenyan peacekeepers.

Zambia's acting ambassador, Mathias Daka, said yesterday that Secretariat officials in New York do not even answer his pleas for information.

With one Kenyan peacekeeper dead, five missing in action and a dozen injured, Mr. Daka says he is increasingly frustrated.

"We watch BBC," he said.

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