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  Swiss time 09:29, Tuesday 28.05.2002
Focus-Could dogs of war become doves of peace

By Matthew Tostevin

FREETOWN (Reuters) - Cool as the bottle of beer in his hand, mercenary pilot Neil Ellis describes his deadly part in saving a United Nations mission and bringing peace to Sierra Leone.

It was May 2000. Rebels had defied a peace deal and were barrelling down towards Freetown. U.N. peacekeepers were in disarray and hundreds had been seized as hostages. Sierra Leone's army had as good as given up the fight.

Ellis, a former South African Air Force airman who had grown tired of farming and hand-lining for fish, climbed into his Mi-24 helicopter gunship and set off in search of rebels.

"We picked them up at a place called Sumbuya and they took a lot of damage there," said Ellis, 52. "When we caught them at Newton we pushed them back again...after they were pushed right back they were finished."

Two years on and the U.N. force has been able to deploy across the ruined West African country, disarm tens of thousands of brutal fighters and allow peaceful elections.

At difficult moments, Ellis says the U.N. mission informally supplied fuel and ammunition as well as helping maintain the Sierra Leone army Mi-24. Now, some suggest relationships between hired guns and peacekeepers could go a lot further.

Mercenary involvement in Sierra Leone's war was only following a pattern in Africa that stretches back to the independence era of the 1960s through conflicts in Congo, Nigeria, Angola and numerous smaller struggles.

Alongside the first Sierra Leonean rebel thrust in 1991 were West African mercenaries from Liberia and Burkina Faso. With the rebels approaching Freetown in 1995, the then government called on the South African private army Executive Outcomes.

MERCENARIES BEAT BACK REBELS

The veterans of apartheid's wars beat back the rebels to a point where elections could be held across much of the country in early 1996.

But after civilian President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah won, he was pushed by the International Monetary Fund and rebels suing for peace to end the contract -- linked indirectly to revenue from diamond mines retaken from the rebels.

Months after the mercenaries left, the army ousted Kabbah and brought the rebels into government, plunging Sierra Leone into the darkest period of a decade of war.

Defenders of the private military companies (PMCs) argue that if the mercenaries had stayed, thousands of Sierra Leoneans might have been saved from murder, rape and mutilation and the biggest current U.N. mission not needed at all.

Kabbah's restoration in 1998 also came about with the help of mercenaries, this time blowing up into a scandal in Britain when it was revealed that officials knew of British firm Sandline's help in contravention of a U.N. arms embargo.

In a report prompted by the "Arms to Africa" affair, Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw suggested a bigger job for mercenary outfits earlier this year.

"Today's world is a far cry from the 1960s when private military activity usually meant mercenaries of the most unsavoury kind," he said. "A strong and reputable private military sector might have a role in enabling the U.N. to respond more rapidly and more effectively in crises."

U.N. WORRIES

But opposition runs deep to the idea of giving greater respectability to those who fight and kill for money or the adrenaline kick, while old U.N. peacekeeping hands raise objections on more than just grounds of taste.

"There is the whole problem of command and control," said Behrooz Sadry, deputy head of the U.N. mission in Sierra Leone and a veteran of peacekeeping since Congo in the 1960s.

"A small number of mercenaries can only succeed through violence. They can sweep an area and kill everyone but this is not the objective of peacekeeping. Then there is the question of loyalty. Suppose a faction can pay more than the U.N?"

The relative costs of the Executive Outcomes and U.N. missions to Sierra Leone, though, provide more ammunition to the backers of private armies -- the peacekeepers cost well over 30 times the $20 million (14 million pound) a year mercenary deal.

Straw suggested that in a sense, the U.N. already employs mercenary forces since some countries contribute for financial reasons and supply troops whose quality and equipment is not easy for the United Nations to control.

From Ellis's point of view, a more formal role might suit him just fine -- and also make it easier back home, where South Africans have been banned since 1998 from taking part in foreign conflicts in a move designed to prevent human rights abuses.

Ellis denies accusations of indiscriminately shooting up villages, though he says Ukrainian pilots flying from neighbouring Guinea might not be so careful to circle around first to be sure of what they are blasting.

Civilians tend to stand and look up at the helicopter; fighters try to run away.

"My whole thing is that you've got to be offensive and that is more difficult for a peacekeeper," said Ellis, now flying for a company called JESA Air West Africa.

28.05.2002 06:45, Reuters
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