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Sierra Leone, 1990-2002 PDF Print E-mail
Contributed by Tom Cooper & Court "Skyler" Chick, with additional details and photographs from "Vidar"   
May 12, 2009 at 03:13 PM
The brutal and chaotic civil war in Sierra Leone was practically "imported" from Liberia. Contrary to the much better-known war in the neighbouring country, however, it saw quite some use of air power.

The civil war(s) in Sierra Leone is one of the most savage wars imaginable, and a prototype of many African wars – perhaps also future armed conflicts elsewhere. Such conflicts are “total wars”, where no difference is made between civilians and soldiers, but the incredible terror of civilian population actually becomes a direct mean of fighting. The main reason of such a war is not the occupation of some specific territory, ideology or religion, but inner-political rivalry between specific persons, ready to break any rules in order to organize a luxurious live for themselves. Given that it was “fought” by widespread and unbelievable terror against civilians, and without mercy by any of involved sides, it is actually almost unbelievable that this war ever ended. The air power played a minor – but highly significant role, proving its worth in counterinsurgency operations once again beyond any doubt.

Sierra Leone (“Lion Mountain”) began its existence as “experimental” community for 1.200 freed slaves who fought for King George during the American Revolution. It was originally some 52 square kilometres in size, bought in 1787 by British. 800 of its initial population died within the first two years after settled there. Between 1807 and 1864 up to 50.000 additional freed slaves were settled in Sierra Leone, and during the early 20th Century the area finally became a British colony.

In 1961 Great Britain ceded independence to Sierra Leone, and the country formed a republic in 1971. Sierra Leone is characteristic by relatively homogenous population of some five million: despite 18 ethnic groups there is no serious religious, class or regional division. Majority of population are Moslems, but there are some Animalists and Christians. The Temne in the north and the Mende in the south are the largest ethnic groups, and ethnic loyalty was an important factor in the government, the military and business. Nevertheless, Creoles – descendants of freed slaves who returned to Sierra Leone from North America and Great Britain – used to be influential in the society.

Since 1978 Sierra Leone had a one-party constitution. This resulted in a massive corruption of the “political” class (local designation), which during the 1980s gradually lost the ability to rule, govern or do anything else on behalf of the people. The economy developed very slowly in the last 40 years, even if the country is in possession of no less but 25% of estimated world-wide reserves of uranium, and also has extensive diamond mines. For decades the majority of diamond and gold production has been smuggled abroad and therefore the economic infrastructure has collapsed due to corruption, neglect and lack of funding. Without surprise, the country is considered one of the poorest in the World.

In 1990, President Joseph Saidu Momoh set up a constitutional review commission to review the constitution with a view of broadening the existing political process and developing democracy. As there was an increasing abuse of power, however, there was great suspicion that Momoh was not serious.

General Moskito
The war in Sierra Leone erupted in 1990, as 3.000 rebels of the “Revolutionary United Front” (RUF), led by Corporal Foday Sankoh, entered the country coming from Liberia and began terrorizing population in rural areas at the time the central government and its authority were nearing a complete disintegration. Sankoh’s fighters – initially mainly disenfranchised young servants in different governmental agencies not paid for longer time, but later predominantly Moslems, ragtag adolescents and villages forces into fighting – were preparing for this action already since some time and therefore it was hardly surprising when they easily defeated the undisciplined and poorly trained units of the Sierra Leone’s regular Army (“Republic of Sierra Leone Military Forces” – RSLMF). In fact, most of the fighting consisted of small, local skirmishes, with both sides discharging only a single clip before running in opposite direction: both, the Army and the RUF were usually on drugs or alcoholised, and casualties on both sides were actually low.

At the time the RSLMF operated only a miniature air arm, equipped with two Saab Model 300 (Hughes 269C) light helicopters, a single MBB Bo.105 (operated by civilian authorities), and two Aérospatiale SA.355F Ecureuil IIs, supplied from Sweden and France, respectively. Consequently its units were experiencing immense problems already in attempting to track and hunt down the small but very mobile groups of rebels in thick jungle and heavy terrain. The rebels, for their part, were actually not interested in fighting what was left of the regular army. Instead, over the time they specialized in atrocities, mutilation of civilians becoming their favourite tactic. Their fighting “units” – if these could be described as such – became known under designation “Burn House Unit”, “Cut Hands Commando”, “Blood Shed Squad”, “Born Naked Squad” or “Kill Man No Blood Unit” (the “speciality” of the later was beating people to death without a drop of blood being spilled), and could make Khmer Rouge appear like ladies football team. The nicks of their commanders – or their backgrounds – were no better, and apparently based on their favourite “technique”: Captain Two Hands, Commander Cut Hands (a 15-year-old boy), Betty Cut Hands (a woman) etc…

The military leaders of the RSLMF finally decided that they could do better than the civilian government against the RUF: in April 1992, President Momoh was removed in a military coup by a group of officers calling themselves the National Provisional Ruling Council, headed by 28-years-old Captain Valentine Alfred Strasser. In fact, nothing changed at all – except the pockets into which the income from smuggling Sierra Leonean diamonds ended: eventually, the RSLMF proved completely unable to even penetrate areas under control of the rebels, not to talk about forcing them back into Liberia. Consequently, three other African nations, including Nigeria, Ghana and Guinea – from the so-called Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – decided to provide support for the regime of dictator Alfred Strasser. Each of the three countries deployed a reinforced battalion into Sierra Leone. However, the allied troops proved at least as unable to tackle with the rebellion as RSLMF before, and by late 1994 the war destroyed most of the small country.

Sankoh – nick-named “General Moskito” – was, namely, a highly experienced soldier. He served in the British Army already in the 1950s, and – after spending several years in Sierra Leonean prisons – left for Libya in the 1980s, to receive additional training in insurgency warfare. He was already able to yield considerable profits from supporting the uprising lead by Charles Taylor in Liberia, and establish several bases in that country from which his fighters could mount raids into Sierra Leone. With good financial and material support from Libya, and in cooperation with Liberian rebels, therefore, Sankoh had little problems in establishing the RUF as the lead military force in his country. Furthermore, by 1994 so many of supply convoys of the RSLMF and ECOMOG sent deeper into Sierra Leone to provide food and medical care to local population were already intercepted by the rebels, that they eventually found themselves in possession of immense amounts of supplies, weapons, and ammunition. It did not last long until Sankoh was able to launch large-scale operations against areas with strategically-important uranium mines, in northern Sierra Leone, most of which were captured within only a few months. Soon afterwards also all of the eastern Sierra Leone was overrun by the rebels and exposed to a regime of dreadful brutality, plundering, rapes and massacres. Even cannibalism was not rare.

Map of Sierra Leone, with position of the Lungi Airport - the crucial installation for this war. (Map by Tom Cooper, based on Encarta 2003 software)

Mercenaries and Diamonds
Dictator Strasser eventually found himself under such a pressure that he agreed to prepare democratic elections under the UN supervision. These, however, were never held, and the RUF was by no means interested in laying down its weapons. On the contrary, reinforced by additional shipments of supplies and ammunition from Libya and Burkina Faso, and more aid from Liberia, in 1995 the rebels achieved their first major victories over the RSLMF and captured the city of Mabimbi.

Changing his plan, Strasser then contracted the well-known US mercenary Bob MacKenzie, who previously served in Vietnam, and fought in Rhodesia, El Salvador and Bosnia. MacKenzie was in turn – unofficially, of course – asked by the British government to head a brigade of 4.000 Ghurkas – all of which were highly experienced from serving with the British Army. The Ghurkas were to recapture diamond mines and push back the rebels, but they had no good luck: MacKenzie was killed only two months after arriving in Sierra Leone (some say cannibalized by the rebels) already during their first mission in the country. Shaken by the swift loss of their leader, they never launched any kind of major operations and have left the country instead. The RSLMF subsequently attempted to put up at least some resemblance of resistance against the RUF, but in March and April 1995 the drug-crazed rebels marched into Moyamba and Rotifunk – only some 60km east from the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown.

Appearance of EO
Frustrated by all failures, Strasser eventually turned to South Africa for help, and contracted the newly-established mercenary company “Executive Outcomes” (EO). The EO was founded by former members of South African Defence Forces elite units, and already known for its successful operations in Angola. Immediately upon signing a contract, the South Africans deployed a small team of specialists to Sierra Leone, to assess the local situation. Additional specialists followed and by April 1995 the EO set up its headquarters in Freetown, and had approximately 100 men in the country. These were supported by a specially chartered Boeing 727 passenger and transport aircraft used for regular flights to South Africa. Additional operators and plenty of equipment followed through May. The EO operations were financed by the DeBeer Company, which had main concessions on uranium mines in Sierra Leone.

Immediately upon their arrival in Sierra Leone the EO operators realized that the RSLMF lacked any kind of an air component, and concluded that the best way of keeping the rebels under pressure would be the use of aircraft and helicopters. Equally, the poor communications in the country were offering plenty of opportunities for ambushes – and these could be easily avoided if the troops would be transported by air. Additionally, the reasoning was that the RSLMF could establish bases in rebel-held areas if these would be supplied from the air only.

By the time the RSLMF already operated two Mi-24Vs bought from the Ukraine. They arrived in such a poor condition that one of them - reportedly serialled "SL-202" - had to immediately be mothballed, and was eventually used as source of spares for the other helicopter (serialled "SL-201", and wearing a roundel with Sierra Leone's national colours on the fin). Based at Lungi Airport, some 70km north-east of Freetown, the sole surviving “Hind” was flown by a group of Ukrainian mercenaries, rather interested in collecting their pay than flying combat sorties.

In addition to Mi-24s, the RSLMF also purchased three Mi-17s from the Ukraine. These were also in such a poor condition that one crash-landed soon after delivery and was subsequently used only as a source of spares. The other two examples were soon in a bad need of maintenance. This really limited “air force” was now to “support” the EO, which was otherwise mainly armed with light weapons – but also two BMP-2 armoured infantry vehicles. Understandably, the South Africans immediately requested Strasser to purchase additional helicopters.

Reports about Mi-24s delivered to Sierra Leone are slightly confusing, despite availability of several clear photographs. One of the two original Mi-24s supplied in the early 1990s looked like this: it wore the standard Soviet-era camouflage pattern of "Sand and Spinach" and was serialled SL-201. Another, seen in the late 1990s and flown by the South African "private contractor" Neall Ellis, was camouflage in a different pattern and wearing the serial "AF0010" - as well as a fin-flash instead of the roundel. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Joint Operations
In March 1995 the ECOMOG troops launched a counteroffensive, supported by two Nigerian Air Force (NAF) Alpha Jets, forward deployed at Lungi airfield. Interestingly, the NAF decided to send only these two fighters to Sierra Leone: there are no traces of any other of Nigerian fighter aircraft to have ever been sent there, even if the NAF operated also a sizeable fleet of Aero L-39ZA Albatros and Aermacchi MB.339A jet-trainers, and also purchased SEPECAT Jaguar International attack fighters. An initial batch of 24 L-39ZAs was delivered in 1986 and 1987, and a follow-up order for 24 additional planes followed in 1992. Although most of the aircraft from the later batch were built, none ever reached Nigeria; even as of 2001, no less but 16 L-39s in full NAF markings were still stored at the Aero Vodochody factory. A similar situation occurred with six Dornier 228 aircraft ordered from Germany, in the early 1990s: all were stored for years before finally being delivered, in early 1996. The 12 MB.229As arrived in the late 1980s, but were apparently used for basic jet training; the 13 Jaguar International single-seaters and five two-seaters never became operational.

The attacks by ECOMOG troops supported by two NAF Alpha Jets, resulted only in a partial victory, even if on 15 March the RSLMF recaptured Moyamba. In fact, after almost a year of presence in Sierra Leone, the ECOMOG troops had to admit their inability to defeat the RUF.

In contrast to its operations in Angola, in Sierra Leone the EO attempted not to become directly involved in fighting. Since there was a raining season between July and September, the time was spent with reorganizing the regular army and refurbishing available weapons. The South Africans purchased two Hawker Siddeley Andovers, used for transporting arms and supplies to Lungi and evacuation of wounded. One of these stood permanently on readiness at the airfield. They also ordered two additional Mi-17s from the Ukraine. As delivered, both helicopters were painted white, but later they were camouflaged Dark Grey overall and nick-named “Bokkie” and “Daisy”. They wore no national markings or serials. While waiting for their delivery their pilots attempted to refresh their training on the two RSLMF machines, but the Ukrainians would not permit them to do so. Namely, while some of the South African pilots were already qualified on Mi-24s and Mi-17s, the Ukrainians considered them for competition and would not permit them to fly “their” helicopters. Once the two Mi-17s arrived, they were overhauled, equipped with GPS and armoured plates bellow the cockpit and have had their rear doors removed. Two machine-guns were mounted in the cabin.

The small EO air arm could also count with some Nigerian support, as the NAF agreed to leave its two Alpha Jets at Lungi, and the pilots of these to cooperate with the South Africans.

Instead of losing time with training the uncontrollable RSLMF forces, which were at least as often involved in atrocities against civilians and looting as fighting the RUF, the South Africans concentrated on organizing small combat teams of Kamajors, traditional hunters and regional pro-government armed militia. While training the Kamajors and waiting for his own equipment, the EO Commander in Sierra Leone, Brigadier Sachs, developed a plan for fighting the RUF. Accordingly, the Government forces were first to clear rebels out of Freetown area, and then advance on the diamond-mining area of Koidu, some 160km from the capital. Once there, a new operation would be launched with the aim of capturing Sankoh’s headquarters. Such an operation, of course, could only become successful through good cooperation between the mercenaries and RSLMF units.

The first EO-supported attack was launched in late August 1995. Several combat teams of Kamajors, together with two EO BMP-2s, advanced from Freetown towards south-east and captured several key positions near the capital. Then the Mi-17s were used to deploy blocking forces behind the most important escape routes. There followed a three-days long aerial campaign, during which the Mi-24s and Alpha Jets hit numerous RUF positions with bombs and unguided rockets, causing heavy casualties. After suffering some 150 killed to air attacks, and having their local command and communication system completely destroyed, the rebels fled in panic towards the north and east – straight into ambushes laid by EO and Kamajors.

While his troops were still ambushing and scattering one group of rebels after the other, Brigadier Sachs immediately initiated the second phase of his offensive. Supported by the Mi-24, the two BMP-2s and Kamajor combat teams driving Land Rovers, advanced swiftly towards east, punching through a number of rebel ambushes as they went. Within two days all the mines and the city of Koidu were recaptured. The Mi-17s were then deployed to fly in supplies and reinforcements. After few days they also flew in the first of some 30.000 refugees that have left this area because of the RUF. During these two operations, the Kamajor combat teams lost only two soldiers killed and five injured, while two EO specialists were wounded. Within only a few weeks, the EO thus achieved more than a full Brigade of ECOMOG troops in a year, or the whole RSLMF in four years of war!

During September the EO-instructed Government troops continued their advance, pursuing the rebels deep into jungle and into Liberia. The defeat of Sankoh’s force appeared to be complete when in the early 1996 the RUF requested a cease-fire. Strasser was now to hold free elections. Within only a few weeks, however, the EO Commanders learned about new RUF groups concentrating in the jungle: Sankoh, namely, misused the cease-fire to recollect his scattered fighters and – with new help from Liberia – prepare a new campaign against Freetown. His intentions were confirmed through a series of new attacks against RSLMF and Kamajor strongholds, in early September 1996. The EO compiled a full report about the situation to the new – democratically elected – Government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, and was immediately granted permission to prepare a new offensive against insurgents.

In order to bolster its reconnaissance capabilities, the South Africans purchased a single Cessna 337 Super Skymaster. The aircraft entered service immediately on arrival and proved highly useful for detecting RUF columns that were advancing through jungle. With help of the Skymaster and the local population the EO operators gathered plenty of very precise intelligence, which enabled them to mount another highly-effective operation. Once again the Alpha Jets led the offensive, hitting most important RUF groups with 250kg bombs. Their attacks were followed by the Mi-24, used to lay suppressive fire while in the rear Kamajor mortar teams were deployed from Mi-17s. The fire from these and all subsequent air strikes was controlled by The Government troops would then deploy mortar-teams, the fire of which was controlled by Cessna 337. Once the target was well covered by fire the Mi-17s would be used to deploy additional Kamajor fighters directly to the battlefield, where these could fight the rebels down.

In 1995, when the government of Sierra Leone contracted the South African company "Executive Outcomes" to help it in the war against Libyan- and Liberian-backed RUF-rebels, two Mi-17s were purchased to support the mercenaries. These were nick-named named "Daisy" (shown here) and "Bokkie" by their crews for their handling in flight (Daisy flew like a cow, Bokkie - which was painted dark grey overall - like a springbok). Both helicopters had their rear doors removed for easier entry and exit. Daisy might have had some kind of a serial applied on the boom, but this was unreadable because of the thick exhaust trace. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Koroma’s Coup
After a series of EO-led Kamajor operations, in the late 1996 the RUF was once again destroyed as an organisation and Sankoh forced to negotiate. On 30 November Kabbah and Sankoh signed the Abijan Peace Agreement: a joint government and RUF committees were to oversee disarmament and demobilization of RUF and government forces.

In accordance with this agreement President Kabbah terminated the contract with EO – which meanwhile operated several T-72 main battle tanks in addition to Mi-24s and Mi-17s: this was, after all, one of the most important of Sankoh’s conditions for peace. Instead of the military – which was still not under complete governmental control, and much too often involved in looting – Civil Defence Force (CDF ) militias were organized from groups of traditional hunters, including Mende Kamajohs, Temne Kapras and Koranko Tamaboros. Nevertheless, the RUF – which refused to participate in elections in 1996 – proved unable to reconcile with the RSLMF. There was also a friction between the RSLMF and the Kamajors, as well as the CDF and the situation culminated in a coup of dissident junior officers, on 25 May 1997. Major Johnny Paul Koroma, arrested for plotting an earlier coup attempt, in September 1996, was freed from prison and named Chairman of the new Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) – a military junta by all purposes. The AFRC immediately suspended the constitution, banned all political parties and all public demonstrations and meetings, and announced that all legislation would be made by military decree. Koroma then invited the RUF to join the AFRC in exercising control over the country. This decision proved bad – for Koroma: joining its forces with the RSLMF to create the new People’s Army of Sierra Leone (PASL), the RUF quickly took control of the junta even if Koroma remained nominal chairman. Sankoh, who was arrested during an early 1997 trip to Nigeria, became Koroma’s Deputy Chairman and thus second-in-charge in Sierra Leone.

The international community was not the least pleased with this development. On 8 October 1997 the UN imposed an arms embargo on Sierra Leone, prohibiting sales of weapons, military material, and petroleum, and also international travel by members of the AFRC. The ECOMOG battalion still present in the country was to enforce the sanctions. Clearly, this could not be done peacefully: as the Nigerians put Sankoh under house arrest in the neighbourhood of his five-star suite at the Abuja Sheraton, fierce clashes between PASL and ECOMOG troops occurred, in which dozens of civilians were killed.

Eventually, the more disciplined ECOMOG troops – meanwhile reinforced to 10.000, and supported also by six Lockheed C-130Hs (one of which crashed on 29 September 1992) and three C-130H-30s, delivered to Nigeria as part of military assistance package worth $4 million, in the early 1990s – prevailed and in January 1998 President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah was returned to power after nine months in exile: notably, this was the first time in history of Africa that a coup against a democratic government was reversed without UN intervention.

Operation No Living Thing
The war was still far from over, as in reaction to executions of 24 former members of Koroma’s junta – including several senior RUF officers – and sentencing of Sankoh to death - the scattered PASL troops launched a campaign of unbelievable terror against the civilian population, to become known as “Operation No Living Thing”: the rebels used rape, mutilation and slavery to bring as much of the country under their control as possible. The new military – actually the Civil Defence Forces (CDF) – and ECOMOG forces, however, drove the rebels out of Freetown and by February 1998 the fighting moved deeper into the country, particularly in other larger cities outside the capital.

However, as their drive lost in power, the CDF and ECOMOG brigade failed to gain control of the whole country, and in December 1998 the rebels not only infiltrated Freetown but also brought large areas close to the capital back under their control. Eventually, even the Presidential Palace, the radio station and the port of Freetown were in their hands. The airfield and the western parts of the city remained under ECOMOG control: ironically, the rebels declared they would not attack that part of Freetown for fear of causing suffering to the civilians.

By the time the Government was still depending on support and instruction of foreign mercenaries, but most of these were apparently contracted outside of any larger companies. In the face of a possible defeat the air power became important again. The CDF was by now in control of two Mi-24s and at least two Mi-17s. All the helicopters were crewed by foreigners. The – meanwhile legendary – South African pilot Neal Ellis, for example, flew one of the Sierra Leonean Mi-24s as a “private military contractor” (the construction number of this helicopter was reportedly 3532421622258; it wore the serial "AF0010" on the boom as well as a fin flash). His team consisted of nine other contractors, recruited around the world: the mechanics were Ethiopian, the machine-gunner a British who served with SAS, and the gunner was French.

A former South African colonel, Ellis has fought in Angola and Bosnia, and worked for both, the Executive Outcomes as well as the UK-based Sandline International. In several cases, Ellis’ helicopter was all that was left between the rebels and Freetown: by delivering slash attacks from low level, using unguided rockets and machine-guns, Ellis scattered or even destroyed several larger rebel groups, causing the RUF to promise, “If we ever catch you, we’ll cut out your heart and eat it.”

Last ditch defense: this was the Mi-24 flown by South African "mercenary" Neal Ellis, in the period 1998-1999. It remains unknown if it was the same Mi-24 as already seen in different camouflage, but refurbished and repainted, or the second Hind purchased for RSLMF already in the early 1990s. In too many cases this helicopter and Ellis were all that was left between the gangs of RUF rebels, the Sierra Leonean government and - foremost - the citizens of Freetown. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

The Final Battle in Freetown
In early January 1999, the US and British military were requested to evacuate foreigners: with this the saddest and most savage period of the whole war began. As the coke-clouded, ganja-dazed AFRC forces – now calling themselves “West Side Boys” – entered Freetown, launching another campaign of horrible terror and suffering, even the President Kabbah was forced to flee. Nigeria and Ghana then began reinforcing their ECOMOG-contingents, and preparing a counteroffensive. On 8 January, the NAF Alpha Jets and Ellis’ Mi-24 attacked the most important rebel positions in Freetown with unguided rockets, causing considerable losses. This was the signal for advance of 3.000 Nigerian troops: in three days of brutal and exceptionally bloody fighting they eventually regained control of the capital, pushing the rebels back into rugged interior. According to unconfirmed reports the NAF lost at least one Alpha Jet during the fighting (a claim fiercely disputed by Nigerian authorities) and the rebels burned down large parts of the cities. The cost of their success was staggering: according to unconfirmed reports, dozens of Nigerian troops were killed, the NAF lost at least one Alpha Jet, and the rebels burned down large parts of the city. Different estimates reported that up to 6.000 civilians were massacred, thousands more mutilated by the rebels, and dozens of thousands forced to flee. The psychological impact of these terrible times will probably be felt for decades to come.

The NAT deployed only two Alpha Jets in support of the Nigerian ECOMOG contingent in Sierra Leone. It remains unknown if thes same two examples remained in country between their first deployment, in 1995, and 1999. Western specialized media claimed that an NAF Alpha Jet was shot down by anti-aircraft fire of the fighters belonging to Sierra Leonean junta, on 8 February 1998, but Grp.Cpt. Sat Easterbook from ECOMOG categorically denied such a claim, in early 1999. (Artwork by Tom Cooper; Photo: Tom Cooper collection)

Background of UN Involvement
The fighting would probably went on without an end was it not for an UN-negotiated settlement, reached in February 1999, which led to months-long negotiations for a wide-ranging peace accord. This was signed on 7 July 1999, in Lome.

As already mentioned, the UN was active in Sierra Leone since some time. The United Nations Security Council established the UN Observer Mission to Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL) already in March 1998, as soon as the ECOMOG troops fought the combined force of the military junta and rebels out of Freetown, and President Kabbah was returned to office. Immediately afterwards, the United Nations Security Council terminated the oil and arms embargo against the country. The first Special Envoy of UNOMSIL was Ugandan Francis G. Okolo. Protected by ECOMOG force he went about his business together with 70 military observers.

One of the first UNOMSIL’s tasks was to document human rights abuses and atrocities against civilians. Foreign observers were forced to leave the country, in December 1998, however, when RUF began its final offensive to retake Freetown.

The UN-sponsored negotiations between the Government and rebel forces began in May of 1999, with an agreement being reached on 7 July: Sankoh again came away: he was pardoned and released from the death sentence he was facing for treason. He demanded – and received – the position of Chairman of a Special Commission on Strategic Ressources: a high-level position in control of the diamonds that lie at the root of Sierra Leone’s conflict. The Lome Agreement was to end hostilities and result with formation of a government of national unity; with the agreement signed, the UN Security Council authorized an increase in the size of UNOMSIL to 210 observers under resolution 1260 (1999) on 20 August. Two months later, on 22 October, the UN Security Council authorized a much larger mission to Sierra Leone, which became known as UNAMSIL. Under UN Resolution 1270 (from 1999), the mission was to have a strength of 6,000 troops, while the number of military observers was to increase to 260. Nominated as Force Commander was Indian Major-General Vijay Jetley. The mission of UNAMSIL was to assist the government and other warring parties in carrying out the provisions of the Lome peace agreement. On the same date, UNOMSIL was terminated.

In late November 1999, an advance party of 133 Kenyan troops arrived at Lungi IAP. At the same time, the four ECOMOG Battalions made up of soldiers from Ghana, Guinea, and Nigeria ‘re-hatted’ and switched to the UN peacekeeping force. The remaining forces were to consist of Indian, Jordanian, Bangladeshi and Zambian contingents. The build-up of forces was not easy though, as the troops and civilians were denied freedom of movement and frequently come under rebel ambushes.

The UN Security Council soon revised the mandate of UNAMSIL and authorized an increase in the number of deployed troops: on 7 February 2000 the UN Resolution 1289 expanded the military component to 11.000 and, three months later, the Resolution 1299 increased this number to 13.000. ECOMOG forces officially departed the country in April, and almost immediately the RUF forces began to violate the ceasefire. All such decisions were in vain, however, then – due to Sankoh’s abilities to survive – the peacekeepers found no peace to keep and were soon forced to abandon any pretence of neutrality.

Hostages and the British Intervention
On 19 January 2000, the RUF detained a group of Guinean soldiers at Bormoi Junction. While they were released shortly thereafter, with all their ammunition and vehicles, it was a trend that would come back to haunt the UN several months later.

The arrival of this significant UN military contingent to Sierra Leone was not sufficient to stop rebel attacks against military, civilian, and UN agencies. The National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (NCDDR) had opened four new camps in April of 2000, including two in RUF territory – Makeni and Magburaka.

In May, the situation of UNAMSIL suddenly detoriated. On 1 May, about 100 fighters of the AFRC ambushed a Nigerian patrol near Port Loko, not far from their base at Okra Hills. When the patrol sergeant refused to hand over their weapons he was shot twice. The Nigerians were released and the sergeant rushed to hospital with a severe gunshot wound to the leg. The next day a force of approximately 100 RUF surrounded the base at Makeni and demanded that ten of their fighters, who had voluntarily turned themselves in, be released. When this request was turned down the RUF attacked Makeni and Magburaka camps, killing four Kenyan soldiers and wounding three. In another incident the same day another group of RUF fighters surrounded a UN Mi-8 (ASCC-Code: ‘Hip’) helicopter and captured the two crewmembers and five passengers. By the end of the day, 17 UNAMSIL personnel would be captured and held hostage throughout the country.

Within the following 24 hours the situation spiralled out of control: on 3 May, 21 peacekeepers were captured at Makeni and 28 in the eastern area of Kailahun. By the 5 May the total would climb to 318 UNAMSIL personnel captured. UNAMSIL HQ lost radio contact with a column of 208 Zambian soldiers riding in 16 APCs, only to learn that the entire force had been taken hostage and 13 of the APCs ended in the RUF hands. In Kuiva a standoff began between the Indian contingent and rebel fighters. There were some bright spots on that day however, as the five passengers from the UN helicopter were released, along with 100 Nigerian soldiers that were briefly detained in Kambia.

With the situation looking bleak, the UN Secretary-General asked for a Rapid Reaction Force, specifically made up of Western forces. At first the United States and Great Britain were reluctant to get involved but on 7 May, London announced that the UK would be sending paras and Royal Marines to the region, in order to help evacuate 500 British nationals from Freetown. This operation was code-named "Palliser". Members of the 1 Battalion Parachute Regiment arrived at Lungi IAP already on the following day, and immediately began setting up defensive positions at the airport and in parts of Freetown, sending out patrols along the highway linking the two. Also on 8 May, the RUF forces opened fire on demonstrators against RUF cease-fire violations outside Sankoh’s house in Freetown, killing as many as 20. Soon after, Sankoh and other senior rebel leaders were captured by the British SAS, while the British made known that they would open fire to defend themselves. Meanwhile, a British Amphibious Ready Group – led by the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious – arrived off Freetown, followed by helicopter assault carrier HMS Ocean (carrying also Chinook HC.2 helicopters of the No.7 Squadron RAF), on 12 May, with Marines of 42 Commando embarked, as well as additional escorts and amphibious ships. The US Navy stationed the USS Thunderbolt, with US Navy SEALs embarked, off the coast as a “precautionary measure”.

While negotiations about release of captured UN personnel went into high gear, with Liberian President Charles Taylor and special envoy, Reverend Jesse Jackson, conducting a dialogue with the rebels, UNAMSIL commanders were not idly standing by, then with British paratroops in position to defend Freetown, the shaken peacekeepers could not only call-in reinforcements, but also restore order in the chaotic UN mission. Some of the local mercenaries – including Ellis – were still in Sierra Leone, even if being left without an employer and not paid for over a year. Ellis continued flying and attacking insurgents at any opportunity, becoming a local hero in Freetown. The British even placed a RAF Squadron Leader on his team, in order to better coordinate their operations – before eventually taking over the duty of issuing Ellis’ and the pay checks for his crew.

On 11 May, 200 Kenyan troops held hostage at the Makeni and Magburaka staged a breakout with the help of the Indian Quick Reaction Company (QRC). The QRC moved 180 kilometres through rebel territory, defeating attacks and ambushes along the way, to rescue the Kenyan troops. Four British Military Observers also escaped and ended up walking 40 miles until they were able to radio UK forces in the capital. Soon after, a SAS patrol in a landrover showed up to make sure they were secure and then were airlifted by RAF Chinook C.1 helicopter to Freetown.

Negotiations began to pay off. On 11 May, the RUF released 139 peacekeepers to Liberia; 15 others followed seven days later. By the 28 May all of the 500 UN personnel held captive were released. Unfortunately, the Indian soldiers at Kuiva and Kailahun were still surrounded, but the UN was able to deliver food supplies by helicopters. Finally, on 29 June, 21 Indian soldiers at Kuiva were released, and set the stage for a dramatic rescue attempt by India in July, one that would be followed by British forces two months later.

Once again, Royal Navy carriers played an indispensable role during the British involvement in one of "small wars" - in this case the civil war in Sierra Leone. HMS Illustrious - seen here several years later, during an exercise - carried not only Fleet Air Arm Sea Harrier FA.2 interceptors, but also RAF Harrier GR.Mk.7 fighter-bombers, which were several times used as deterrent during the Operation Palliser, in 2000. (Royal Navy Photo)

Elsewhere, the month of May saw the decline of overall security situation in Sierra Leone, despite the arrival of British forces. On 6 May an RUF force of between 500 and 1.000 captured Lunsar and began advancing toward Masiaka. Three days later an UNAMSIL contingent of 220 troops from Nigeria and Guinea was forced to withdraw from Masiaka after coming under fire from rebels and exhausting all of their ammunition, losing one UNAMSIL vehicle and two personnel captured. Helicopters from the Indian Air Force helicopter unit were called-in to evacuate three Kenyan casualties and eleven Military Observers from Makeni, on 7 May. Soon after departing, one of involved helicopters came under ground fire and was forced to land some ten kilometres from the town. Another IAF helicopter in the vicinity responded to the mayday call and was able to pick up the crew and passengers, with rebels advancing from all sides. Due to the detoriating situation, it was decided to leave the crippled helicopter in place.

On 11 May, the RSLMF fought rebel forces between Newton and Songo. While spokesmen said UN forces were not involved, reporters stated that Nigerian troops used anti-aircraft guns and RPGs to recapture lost territory. On the following day a three-hour battle between the RUF and UNAMSIL, supported by pro-RSLMF militias, erupted near Mile 91. Helicopter gunships were called-in to assist the Guinean troops and they were able to repel the attack. On 17, a fire fight between the Paras and rebel forces broke out ten miles east of Lungi IAP, with four rebels killed. Another clash fought in Port Loko, some 25 miles from Freetown, shortly later, left an UN soldier and six Sierra Leone Army (SLA) soldiers killed. The following day, the UK would mount a show of force as a Fleet Air Arm Sea Harrier fighter and several helicopters flew over Freetown. The British increased their presence on 19 May, when Royal Marine Commandos staged a landing exercise on the beaches of Sierra Leone. Supported by HMS Chatham, helicopters from HMS Ocean flew the Commandos to an area eight miles up the Freetown River.

The UNAMSIL was meanwhile knee-deep involved in the war against rebels: a clash at the Wilberforce Barracks, on 23 May, resulted in two Nigerian peacekeepers and three AFRC soldiers killed. Six days later a battle erupted at Rogberi Junction, in which 29 rebels were killed by soldiers of the RSLMF. By the end of the month most of the UN soldiers held captive were released, but 21 Indian troops were still trapped in the village of Quiver in eastern Kailahun District. The British notched up another sucessful operation: Members of the Special Air Service were able to capture the RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, and take him to a secure location. While not widely reported, it wouldn’t be the last operation for the SAS in Sierra Leone.

On 23 May the Para’s were relieved by 42 Commando along with 20 Commando Battery, Royal Artillery, 539 Assault Squadron, and members from the Special Boat Squadron. 20 Commando Battery would have one notable success after a fire fight on the island of Pepel, which resulted in the capture of 15 ‘West Side Boys’ and four long barrelled weapons. On 15 June the Royal Marines returned to HMS Ocean, thus ending Operation Palliser.

The brand-new helicopter carrier HMS Ocean saw her first action during the Operation "Palliser". Her capability to carry a sizeable number of various helicopters in combination with Royal Marines, and also act as a basis for crisis intervention was proven beyond any doubt during operations in Sierra Leone. (Royal Navy Photo)

HMS Chatham supported heliborne landings, on 23 May 2000. Contrary to the first four vessels of the Type 22 class, the HMS Chatham and sister ships of her batch were equipped with a turret-mounted 115mm gun - a highly valuable weapon, today considered indispensable for support of similar operations. (Royal Navy Photo)

Operation Khukri
Immediately after the release of the 21 Indian soldiers from their camp at Kuiva, the UN set in motion a plan to rescue the two companies of the 5/8 Gurkha Rifles (Mechanized Company-1 and Motorised Rifle Company-1), surrounded at Kailahun. The company commanders were able to talk regularly with their commanders back at base, and before the assault were given the broad outline of the plan along with their duties.

The forces involved would include the Indian QRC (troops of 5/8GR, 14 Mechanised Infantry, 23 Mechanised , and 9 PARA (SF)), a company from 2 PARA (SF). Support was to be provided by Indian Mi-8s, Chetaks, and Mi-35s, two companies of African troops (one each from Ghana and Nigeria), and RAF Chinook C.1 helicopters, as well as elements of the D Squadron SAS. Against this force was a battle-hardened but utterly undisciplined RUF rag-tag force armed with AK-47s, RPG-7s, and MANPADs.

Phase I of the operation Khukri began on the 13 July with the deployment of the combat elements from their bases in Freetown and Hastings to Kenema and Daru. The movement phase was conducted using Indian Air Force (IAF) Mi-8s and Mi-26s, as well as RAF Chinooks and a Hercules C.1 transports. By the evening of the 14 the first phase was complete and all forces in their designated positions.

At dawn on the 15 June, two helicopters landing site outside of Kailahun was sanitized by forces in place there. At 0615hrs two RAF Chinook helicopters, guided by SAS troops who had been monitoring rebel forces since some time, landed two kilometres south of Kailahun and dropped off soldiers from 2 PARA (SF) to take care of any RUF fighters that decided to contest the breakout. The Chinooks carried on to Kailahun and at 0620hrs landed and extracted 33 personnel suffering from illness, as well as eleven Military Observers, plus different stores and flew them back to Freetown.

Once the Chinooks had departed, the two Kailahun companies began their assault on the town, supported by rocket launchers and 51mm mortar fire that lasted ten minutes. Mech-1 captured the town square, to be used as the Forming Up Place (FUP), and Mot-1 an RUF checkpoint on the road from Kailahun to Daru. Mot-1 took heavy fire from the checkpoint but they quickly assaulted the position and secured it. At this time the column departed the town with Ghatak (Commando) Platoon in the lead.

At 0730hrs the Daru, column (5/8GR) moved out, having been relieved in place by two companies of the Nigerian Battalion (NIBATT). At the same time the QRC was airlifted by two waves of three Mi-8s each to Area 3 Bridges. At 0738hrs the Kailahun companies linked up with 2 PARA (SF) and began moving towards Giehun with 2 PARA pulling rearguard duty and taking care of snipers along the way. Around 0930hrs Indian Mi-35s had arrived to provide security for the column.

At 0945hrs, 18 Grenadiers of INDBATT-2 were airlifted to a position northeast of Giehun and awaited the arrival of the Kailahun column, linking up with them by 1030hrs. The column then entered the town. One hour later a company from the Kailahun column was airlifted to Daru.

By 1230hrs the Daru column of 5/8GR linked up with the QRC at Area 3 Bridges, having fought through the towns of Bewabu and Kuiva, and prepared to attack the town of Pendembu. The town was the headquarters of the RUF number 1 Brigade and a tough battle was expected. An Mi-35 initiated the attack with a precise attack against known RUF positions inside the city. Mech-2 then moved through the town and occupied the northern section of Pendembu while Mot-2 systematically began searching houses. Several fire fights broke out, with the RUF forces taking all the casualties. With the town secure, a column was sent through the jungle and linked up with the remaining forces of the Kailahun column, which was then escorted into Pendembu, arriving at 1900hrs.

Beginning at 0815hrs on the 16 June, IAF Mi-8s began airlifting 2 PARA (SF) and INBATT-2 (minus D Company) to Daru. While the airlift was still ongoing, an Mi-35 engaged RUF forces north of Pendembu which were advancing on the town. By 1030hrs the last of 12 sorties by the Mi-8s were complete. 5/8GR along with the QRC (minus two platoons) departed Pendembu with Mot-2 in the lead. Mech-2 remained to the north to provide security, with one Mi-35 providing cover. On the return trip to Daru the column encountered ambushes along the way, with two taking place at 1430hrs. Mot-2 at the head of the column was ambushed outside of Bewabu while INDBATT-2 was hit outside of Kuiva. A vehicle carrying ammunition at the second ambush site was hit by an RPG, destroying it, and a Chetak helicopter was brought in to pick up the casualty.

At 1730hrs the column reached Daru, concluding this successful operation, that provided a boost for both, the Indian Army and UNAMSIL forces.

Overhead view of the area in which Operation Khukri was undertaken. (Map by Courtney Chick, based on Google Earth software)

Political Crises and Aviation Muscle
In August 2000, the UNAMSIL Force Commander, Major-General Jetley, abruptly left the mission. An unofficial report about this decision, written by Jetley – and circulated amongst the UN Security Council - was leaked to the British Guardian newspaper: this document critized the Nigerian commanders of UNAMSIL, including his deputy Brigadier-General Mohammed Garba along with UN under-secretary General Oluyemi Adeniji, and the former head of ECOMOG forces Major-General Gabriel Kpamber, both also from Nigeria.

Vijay Jetley accused the Nigerians of trying to scuttle the peace process because it conflicted not only with the RUF but also major players in the diamond ‘racket’: Liberia and Nigeria. Jetley alleged that the Nigerian commanders “cultivated the RUF leadership, especially Foday Sankoh, “behind my back”, and profited millions from illegal diamond mining. Jetley also complained of serious logistical problems experienced by UNAMSIL forces.

This affair had no immediate repercussions for any of the involved, nor for the war in Sierra Leona. On the contrary, the next most important development for the UN mission was the arrival of four Russian Mi-24s – together with 115 pilots and technicians - at the Lungi International Airport, in August. At this point another crisis would emerge.

The West Side Boys and Operation Barras
As a military force, the West Side Boys were a motley crew made up of former RUF and Sierra Leone Army (SLA) members, along with ordinary civilians and criminals released from Pademba Road Prison, during the 1997 coup. They went into battle wearing women’s wigs and flip-flops and were more times then not drugged or drunk. The group was strongest around Masiaka and had in fact sided with government forces in fighting the RUF in June of 2000 but had a falling out and ended up fighting their former allies. While not as widely known as the RUF, they would make a name for themselves, on 26 of August, 2000.

A patrol of eleven soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment and a SLA liaison officer, led by Major Alan Marshall, drove to the West Side Boys base in Okra Hills, after visiting a Jordanian battalion in Masiaka. Marshall believed that only a few rebels were present at the base: unfortunately, the reverse was true and the soldiers were quickly overwhelmed and captured, together with three Land Rovers and heavy weapons. They were subsequently taken to Geri Bana, across Rokel creek.

Events moved quickly and two days later hostage negotiators from the Ministry of Defense and Metropolitan Police, along with an SAS assessment team, arrived in Freetown. The West Side Boys made their initial demands at this time, which included the release of a captured leader, food, and medicine.

Meanwhile, the British military was deployed: elements of D Squadron, SAS, began to infiltrate the area around the rebel camp. Dividing into pairs, the teams moved into positions and began surveillance of the target areas, sending detailed information back to England so that a mock up could be built for training. Other forces were alerted for possible deployment to Sierra Leone, including RFA Argus – which was heading for an exercise off of Turkey – and around 150 members of the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment, selected as they had recently returned from duty in the country. A sealed envelope was delivered to the skipper of RFA Argus, who then ordered the ship to steam for the coast of Sierra Leone. A Hercules C.1 transport then departed the UK: underway via Dakur, in Senegal, it delivered two Lynx helicopters Lungi IAP. Once the Lynx’ were offloaded they flew with three Chinooks to Hastings.

On 3 September the West Side Boys released five soldiers in return for a satellite phone, food, and medicine. Their Commander, Foday Kallay, then used the phone to demand the current government of Sierra Leone to step down. Unbeknownst to Kallay, the negotiators had given him the phone in order to get an accurate fix on where the remaining hostages where kept. More information was coming in from the SAS teams in their hiding positions – including the erratic behaviour of Kallay, mock executions, and the positions of heavy weapons, including those captured from the patrol.

After conducting training in England, 150 members of 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment, were flown from the UK to Dakur then on to Freetown on the 6th. Three days later Foday Kallay threatened to kill the hostages. Fearing for their safety, the signal for a rescue mission was sent from the Prime Minister.

RAF Chinooks, like the example shown here, were used to ferry British paras and SAS during the Operation Barras. (Photo: Georg Mader)

The Rescue Mission
H-Hour for Operation code-named “Barras” was set for 0616hrs local on 10 September. At that time, two RAF Lynx and three Chinook helicopters departed Hastings for the short flight to the West Side Boys camp. The Lynx helicopters would act as gunships for the mission to provide covering fire for the Chinooks, laden with Para’s and SAS.

The helicopters approached at a very low level along the river to ensure surprise. Once they neared the target, the two Lynx’s split off with one attacking from the south and the other from the north. While the helicopters were en route, the SAS surveillance teams spotted rebels setting up firing positions and radioed the information back to the Permanent Joint Headquarters back to Northwood, UK, to be relayed to the rescue force. As the helicopters were overhead, Jordanian and SLA troops moved and set up blocking positions on the road to Magbeni, though they weren’t told beforehand the reasons why.

At 0640hrs two of the Chinooks, with the majority of the Paras onboard, landed on the south side of Rokel Creek at Magbeni and Forodugu to attack rebel positions and draw attention away from the south The Paras came under heavy fire as soon as they departed the helicopters, including fire from the Browning machine guns captured with the Land Rovers. Next the Chinook with the SAS rescue force onboard landed at Geri Bana, coming under fire immediately. The surveillance teams moved in, and a unit from the SBS emerged from the creek, firing on insurgents. Surprise was complete and they quickly overwhelmed the rebels guarding the hostages. The force split into two teams, with one releasing the hostages and the second capturing Foday Kallay. Twenty minutes later, at 0700hrs, the hostages, along with one SAS casualty, were loaded onto the Chinook and flown to RFA Sir Percival standing by in Freetown harbour.

Overhead view of villages assaulted by paras and SAS durign the Operation Barras, with Freetown in the background, towards west. (Map by Courtney Chick, based on Google Earth software)

The Paras remained in the area until 1600hrs, though most of the action was over by around 0800hrs. They scoured the jungle looking for those rebels that had fled during the initial assault to complete another important task: recover the three captured Land Rovers and heavy weapons. Of the 60-odd West Side Boys fighters in the area that day, twenty-five were killed and eighteen captured. SAS Trooper Brad Tinnion, shot while exiting the Chinook landing at Geri Bana, would not survive the helicopter flight to RFA Sir Percival. Twelve Paras were also wounded, none critically. While devastating in terms of casualties, the Operation Barras was a huge psychological blow to the insurgents.

In addition, less than two weeks later, on 20 September, SLA forces mounted an attack on the West Sides Boys and capture their bases at Magbeni, Layah, and Masumana, effectively putting the rebel force out of action.

Reconstruction of the Operation Barras. (Courtesy: Specialoperations.com)

Focus Relief and Dissident attacks
By the time, the US initiated Operation “Focus Relief”, with the aim of training West African troops in peacekeeping operations, in Nigeria. Approximately 300 Green Berets from the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), along with medical personnel and UH-60 MEDEVAC helicopters from the 30th Medical Brigade, began training two Nigerian battalions in peacekeeping duties.

Five additional units were slated for the same training process. The following year the Green Berets trained also a battalion from Ghana, as well as another from Senegal. The USA have not had any forces deployed with UNAMSIL, but made use of Lungi IAP as a staging are for operations in Liberia, including HH-60Gs from the 56th Rescue Squadron, the 786th Security Forces Squadron, and the 398th Air Expeditionary Squadron.

While the fate of the British soldiers held hostage and their rescue caught most of the media attention, more fighting occurred on both sides of the border between Sierra Leone and Guinea, and then also Liberia; simultaneously, India and Jordan – two major contributors to UNAMSIL – threatened to pull out from the mission. To add to the problems, on 8 September the RUF-supported dissidents attacked bases of Guinean armed forces inside Guinea, first in the Forecariah area and the Forest region, then also in Guekedou, Macenta, and Kissigougou. In retaliation, the Guinean Armed Forces launched several “pre-emptive” strikes against dissident camps in the Kambia, Bombali and Koinadugu districts of Sierra Leone, and then entered the country to attack additional different RUF camps.

Concluding that there was a lack of support and participation for the UNAMSIL mission in the West, India and Jordan finally withdrew their forces. Upon these decisions, on 10 October, the British announced they were diverting an Amphibious Ready Group – made of HMS Fearless, HMS Ocean, and three RFAs with 43 Commando embarked, to Sierra Leone. This force remained in the area for only a limited period of time in November 2000, when a new ceasefire was signed, in Abuja.

The truce brought no end to the war: in fact, the fighting increased. In November of 2000, a new UNAMSIL Force Commander, Lt.Gen. Daniel Opande (from Kenya) arrived in Sierra Leone along with his Chief of Staff, Brig.Gen. Alistair Duncan, from the UK. The following month the Deputy Force Commander, Maj.Gen. Martin Agwai (from Nigeria) arrived to assume his duties, while the British rotated their forces, with the 2nd Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles relieving the Prince of Wales Own Regiment.

New Year, new attacks
Dissidents continued to attack into Guinea from their bases in Sierra Leone and Liberia also in January 2001. In response the Guinean Armed Forces began directing artillery fire into Liberia, prompting Liberian President Charles Taylor too threaten retaliation. The threat of a regional war erupting forced ECOWAS to take action: deploying 1,796 soldiers at the convergence of the borders of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia the African contingent was once again in the middle of the following action.

Of course, the fighting in this area did not stop. Consequently, in February and March the Guinean Armed Forces conducted several air strikes on towns in the Kambia District, using Mi-24 and Hughes 500-D gunships, reportedly flown by Ukrainian pilots and a mixed crew of other nationalities.

By the time the UNAMSIL aviation detachment was increased to four Mi-24 ‘Hind-F’, six Mi-8/17 ‘Hips’, three Mi-26 ‘Halo’, and two Sikorsky S-61N helicopters. This was an important reinforcement, then otherwise the UN forces would have been unable to move detachments around the country – and especially into rebel-held territory, in March, when the UNAMSIL contingent was also increased by addition of US-trained contingents from Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria.

Negotiations between the Government and RUF were continued, and on 15 May a deal was reached between the two sides, agreeing to an immediate cessation of hostilities. This allowed the deployment of UNAMSIL peacekeepers into RUF territory as a preclude to a disarmament program. In the end, the RUF did not have much choice but to sign the agreement as they were being squeezed by Guinean forces and the presence of British in the country. With the agreement signed, the DDR program resumed on a wide scale which resulted in a significant reduction in hostilities.

Isolated attacks were continued throughout the remainder of the year, with one incident highlighting a growing concern in countries along the West African Coast of Atlantic. In October of 2001, a gang of eight men attacked the fuel carrier Cape Georjean, while this was moored off Cape Sierra Point. The attack was repulsed by a Royal Navy superintendent armed with a pump-action shotgun and members of the mainly Russian crew.

The Republic of Sierra Leone Defence Force suffered a setback, however, when on the 19th of October one of their two Mi-24V ‘Hinds’ crashed in a swamp south of Kenema, shortly after take-off, killing a British Army press officer and wounding the rest of the occupants. The investigation found the crash was due to engine failure. Three weeks later, on 7 November, an UNAMSIL helicopter on a flight from Lungi to Freetown crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all seven onboard. In the same month also a Nepalese infantry battalion arrived in country, bringing the total UNAMSIL strength to its mandated 17,500. By the end of the year the UN had moved into previous RUF strongholds in the east and north, including the diamond fields previously under rebel control.

One of two Mi-26Ts chartered by UNAMSIL from the Russian Company UTAir, as seen at Lungi IAP. (Photo: UN)

Things began to look up for the UN mission in January 2002. The eighth meeting of the DDR program reported that at this point some 72,000 ex-combatants had been disarmed and demobilized, including 45,000 rebels, although many still awaited reintegration. On the 18th of the month, President Kabbah declared the civil over officially over.

In May 2002, Kabbah and his party, the SLPP, won landslide victories in the presidential and legislative elections. The RUFP, the political wing of the RUF, failed to win a single seat in parliament. On 28 July the British withdrew a 200-man military contingent, leaving behind a 140-man military training team (IMATT) to professionalize the RSLMF. The UN followed suit in the fall of 2002, and began a gradual reduction of forces in country. On 11 September 2002, security ministers from Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia held a meeting in Freetown in which they pledged to renew peace-building efforts in the region. Called the Mano River Union, the initiative would include increased security along the common borders, assistance for displaced persons, and support for refugee repatriation.

Some groups in Sierra Leone still clanged to the hope of overthrowing the government, though for the most part unsuccessfully. On the 18 January 2003, a group of armed men from the AFRC attempted to break into an armoury in Freetown. The attack failed, and the AFRC leader, Johnny Paul Koroma, went into hiding after being linked to the operation. In March, the Special Court for Sierra Leone issued its first indictments for war crimes, including Foday Sankoh (already in custody), the RUF field commander Sam “Mosquito” Bockarie, Johnny Paul Koroma (the former head of the Civil Defense Force), Sam Hinga Norman, Issa Hassan Sesay, Alex Timba Brima, and Morris Kallon. Charges included acts of terrorism, rape, sexual slavery, and extermination. On 4 June, the Special Court indicted also Liberian President Charles Taylor for supporting rebels during the civil war. Foday Sankoh was never to face a trial, however: on 29 July he died in prison of a heart attack.

UN Drawdown
While the UN had withdrawn some forces from the country, the British applied pressure, and deployed the 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles for a second tour, so that by October of 2003 the UN force stood at 12.000 men again.

Peaceful conditions continued in Sierra Leone, however, and the UN again began to draw down the UNAMSIL contingent. In April they handed over security of the northern provinces to the RSLMF, followed by southern provinces, in May, reducing the strength to 9.000.

Another tragedy hit the UN mission on 29 June, when a Russian chartered Mi-8 crashed in the eastern section of the country. The helicopter was on a routine supply flight between Hastings and Yengeman in Kono district when contact was lost to the UNAMSIL air operations centre. Three UN helicopters were sent on a rescue mission and located the wreckage. The site was inaccessible by aircraft or vehicles so a search team had to continue to the scene by foot. Once there it was confirmed that there were no survivors. Killed in the crash were 14 members from the Pakistan contingent, one peacekeeper from Bangladesh, three Russian crew members, a Ghanian UN volunteer, a Sierra Leonean UN civilian contractor, three Sierra Leonean aid workers, and one Ugandan aid worker. Two days later the UN grounded its whole Mi-8-fleet for general inspection.

By November both the eastern and western provinces were handed over to the RSLMF. In December 2004, the number of UN peacekeepers was again reduced, this time to only 4.000. The UN decided to extend the mandate of UNAMSIL, first until June 2005, and then until December 2005.

A Strange Happy End
Afraid that the British involvement in UNAMSIL was a new version of mercenary deployment – like one that successfully destroyed the RUF years earlier – the West Side Boys eventually became anxious for a negotiated settlement. It was therefore not only the UN mission, but also the British and involvement of a number of foreign mercenaries that brought peace to Sierra Leone. The large UNAMSIL force (by late 2001 this grew to something like 17.500 peacekeepers), the government was able to assert control over the whole country; but, it survived solely due to mercenaries and the British intervention.

The civil war in Sierra Leone officially ended on 18 January 2002, when all parties issued a Declaration of the End of the War. The PASL – including both the RUF and AFRC – was disbanded, together with the CDF, and a total of over 75.000 fighters disarmed, even if the fighters of the later retained informal links to act in concert as a veterans’ lobbying group. In May 2002 new presidential and parliamentary elections were held and Ahmed Tejan Kabbah re-elected President. Nevertheless, the areas along the Liberian border remain unstable as a result of continued incursions by both, the Armed Forces of Liberia and Liberian rebels.

Focus has since been on retraining a new Sierra Leone Army (by soldiers of the UN contingent, but also several foreign "private enterprises"), again based to a large degree on previous Kamajors, mainly by the USA and the UK, but also through a reinforced ECOMOG contingent. The new Army is to help control the illicit diamonds exports in order to reduce the sources of funding for different illegal organisations. In early 2004, the government of Sierra Leone received at least two helicopters as gift for VIP-transportation purposes: an unidentified Sea King or Commando helicopter (see bellow for photographs), and an Alouette III, reportedly painted green overall and wearing national markings (white circle with green center).

Until today it remains unknown how many people were killed in this war. Estimates are that at least 60.000 civilians died in fighting. The Nigerian government never released any casualty figures for its contingent in ECOMOG: other participants in this force followed the suit. The number of killed rebels – regardless of their fraction – remains unknown.

In 2004 a single Sea King helicopter was donated to government of Sierra Leone for VIP-transport purposes. The origin of this helicopter and its subsequent fate remain unknown. (Photo: Vidar for ACIG.org)

UN Helicopters in Sierra Leone
Most of the Russian-origin helicopters chartered by UN for UNAMSIL come from TyumenAviaTrans - subsequently renamed UT Air, the largest helicopter operator in Russia. As of early 2004, a total of four Mi-24s (all from the Indian Air Force), several Mi-8s or Mi-17s, and at least two Mi-26s were observed at the UN-compound of the Lungi IAP. All were painted in white overall, with large UN markings.

As of 2003 and 2004 following UN-chartered helicopters were observed in Sierra Leone:

- UN-092: Mi-26T (helicopter from Russia, observed over Freetown on 28 July, 2003)

- UN-093: Mi-8 (RA-25200; helicopter from Russia, observed over Freetown on 10 July 2003)

- UN-096: Mi-8 (RA-25???; helicopter from Russia, observed ??)

- UN-098: Mi-26T (serial not confirmed; helicopter from Russia)

- UN-109: Mi-8 (serial not confirmed; helicopter from Russia)

- UN-110: Mi-35 (Indian Air Force)

- UN-112: Mi-35 (Indian Air Force)

- UN-??: Chetak (Z425; Indian Air Force)

- UN-119: Mi-8 (helicopter from Russia)

One of several Mi-8/17s chartered by UNAMSIL for operations in Sierra Leone. These helicopters saw heavy service in support of the UN contingent. (Photo: UN)

Sources & Bibliography

- "THE WORLD IN CONFLICT; Contemporary Warfare Described and Analysed, War Annual 7", by John Laffin, Brassey's, 1996 (ISBN: 1-85753-196-5)

- Various contemporary press reports by ABC, APA, BBC, CNN, ÖMZ, IRIB etc.

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