- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2000

Members of Congress said yesterday they had been notified that U.S. forces were in or near Sierra Leone, and warned against allowing them to be dragged into a tense standoff in that country between U.N. peacekeepers and a ruthless rebel force.

"I urge the administration to consult with Congress as soon as possible … if the administration is considering undertaking military operations in this hostile area," said Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, New York Republican and chairman of the International Relations Committee.

Mr. Gilman issued a statement over the weekend saying the State Department had notified him, as required by the War Powers Resolution, that U.S. troops were in the Sierra Leone theater of operation.

The Pentagon yesterday confirmed that seven members of the U.S. military were on board a British aircraft carrier in the region, on a "normal military-to-military exchange."

The seven all are pilots or "associated with the air operation," said Lt. Col. Steven Campbell, a Pentagon spokesman. Two are from the Marines, four from the Navy and one from the Air Force.

Col. Campbell said there was no basis to reports that U.S. personnel were handling air-traffic control at the Sierra Leone airport and operating a PT boat in the region.

He said there is an American PT boat in Dakar, Senegal, "about 450 nautical miles from Sierra Leone."

A Defense Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen has given permission for the U.S. troops to be used in "evacuation operations if necessary."

From a military perspective, he added, the U.S. troops are gaining valuable experience "watching and learning" how the British conduct their operations.

U.N. officials in Freetown, the Sierra Leone capital, said yesterday the rebels had freed 139 U.N. peacekeepers, and called for a cease-fire with all sides returning to their pre-crisis positions.

An additional 347 U.N. peacekeepers remained in the hands of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, who seized or surrounded them at the start of May in a dispute over disarmament.

"Our position is that the fighting should not be widening beyond what is necessary to restore the [pre-crisis] status quo," the U.N. special representative for Sierra Leone, Oluyemi Adeniji, said at a briefing in Freetown.

The RUF, which has broken a 1999 peace deal, at one point threatened to rout the peace force and overrun the capital. But British troops, on hand to evacuate their citizens, helped secure Freetown and restore the U.N. troops' morale.

President Clinton asked civil rights leader Jesse Jackson to visit five West African nations this week in a bid to urge leaders to help end the fighting in Sierra Leone, the State Department said yesterday.

Mr. Jackson, who mediated in Sierra Leone last year, is going to Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Mali and Nigeria.

Mr. Adeniji held talks on Sunday with Liberian President Charles Taylor in Monrovia.

Mr. Taylor, who helped RUF leader Foday Sankoh after he took up arms in 1991, has been asked by Sierra Leone's West African neighbors to negotiate a release of the hostages.

The U.N. Mission in Sierra Leone, now the largest U.N. peacekeeping operation in the world, has more than 9,000 troops and will soon grow to 11,100.

The force is working with British paratroopers to guard strategic positions in the capital and the British commander said the city is now secure.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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