FREETOWN, June 4 (Reuters) - Sierra Leone plans to start contributing soldiers to African peacekeeping missions over the next few years following the end of its own civil war, the country's top British military training officer said.
Providing peacekeepers for conflicts around Africa would be a major achievement for an army long known for coup-plotting and chaos and which instilled as much fear in many civilians as rebels who fought in the former British colony's 1991-2002 war.
The West African nation's army has been trained by British military experts since British soldiers intervened seven years ago to back what became the world's biggest U.N. peacekeeping force and to help end more than a decade of conflict.
"The reality is that the people of Sierra Leone have much more trust in their army now," Brigadier Iain David Cholerton, commander in Sierra Leone of Britain's International Military Advisory and Training Team (IMATT), told Reuters.
"There was a time when they feared their soldiers. I don't think they fear them any more, they respect them and increasingly admire them," he said in a weekend interview in his headquarters on a hill overlooking Freetown.
Sierra Leone had committed to preparing a company of 100-150 infantrymen who would next year form part of a Nigerian-led battalion ready for peacekeeping missions with the African Union (AU) or West African body ECOWAS, Cholerton said.
Western nations including Britain, France and the United States are keen to build up Africa's peacekeeping capacity, partly to avoid having to send their own troops into conflicts.
Visiting Sierra Leone last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said rich nations should reinforce their commitment at a G8 summit this week to back African peacekeepers.
AFRICAN UNION STRETCHED
The AU has a 7,000-strong contingent in Darfur, where experts say more than 200,000 people have been killed in political and ethnic conflict since 2003.
An initial contingent of 1,600 AU troops are in Somalia to help restore order after Ethiopian and Somali government forces launched a December offensive and defeated Islamists militants who had controlled much of the country.
But the forces are overstretched and African nations are struggling to maintain their commitments.
Senegal has said it could withdraw its troops from the force in Darfur unless it is given firm U.N. backing while Uganda, which provides all of the AU troops in Somalia, has been wary of sending more amid security concerns. Other nations who pledged troops for Somalia have not sent them yet.
Although peacekeeping training has not yet started in Sierra Leone, the company to be contributed has been selected. Officers were working on how best to adapt the teaching and equipment to meet the needs of the Nigerian troops they would work with.
Senior officers were also being trained to take commanding roles in peacekeeping in the longer term, Cholerton said.
"We already have (Sierra Leonean) officers who've been seconded to other peace operations. We've got people in Nepal currently, we've had people on military observer courses. ... What we're trying to do is develop their leadership capability."
The transformation in Sierra Leone's army is marked.
Soldiers who once manned roadblocks at which taxi drivers and residents were routinely forced to pay bribes no longer carry weapons on the streets and the army has handed responsibility for internal security to the civilian police.
"Peacekeeping is something every soldier in this country aspires to. We believe we're up to standard. We've had training and we're now well-disciplined soldiers," said one army private.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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