By Anthony Goodman
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 7 (Reuters) - The Security Council unanimously approved on Monday the strengthening of a U.N. peacekeeping force in ravaged Sierra Leone from 6,000 troops to 11,100, making it the biggest U.N. field operation.
The U.N. Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), established last October, was also given a more robust mandate and renewed for another six months.
The force is being beefed-up to help offset the withdrawal of a Nigerian-led force called ECOMOG -- the Military Observer Group of the Economic Community of West African States.
ECOMOG has been operating in Sierra Leone since the early days of the nine-year-old conflict and expelled rebel troops from Freetown, the capital, in February 1998.
The U.N. force's new authorized strength of 11,100 will include 260 military observers already deployed and an additional 60 civilian police. Only six police are currently serving.
Some of the 5,500 Nigerian and other ECOMOG troops still in Sierra Leone will be incorporated into the expanded U.N. mission.
UNAMSIL is helping implement a shaky peace accord signed last July in Lome, the capital of Togo, between Sierra Leone President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and Foday Sakoh, leader of the rebel Revolutionary United Front.
The accord is aimed at ending a particularly brutal conflict that broke out in 1991, claiming tens of thousands of lives and devastating the economy of the former British colony, rich in diamonds and bauxite.
The rebels, who are reported to have used diamond smuggling to buy weapons, hacked the limbs off thousands of civilians suspected of sympathy for Kabbah.
Despite the Lome agreement, U.N. monitors reported only recently that rebel gangs were again looting villages, burning houses, raping women and mutilating civilians in northern areas.
One of the tasks of the reinforced U.N. operation is to help disarm an estimated 45,000 former combatants -- part of a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program that has been proceeding very slowly.
Sir Jeremy Greenstock of Britain, sponsor of the council resolution, said the six new UNAMSIL battalions would be deployed in the north and east of the country "to ensure the disarmament of hardcore...rebels in their heartlands."
Asked about reports that rebels had, in fact, disarmed some peacekeepers, a U.N. spokesman said Monday there had been three recent confrontations in which "some weapons were taken."
In two cases arms were taken from U.N. troops while in the third case, involving the largest number of weapons, about 500 rifles were taken from "what was at that time still an ECOMOG unit," the spokesman said.
The new broader mandate of UNAMSIL, commanded by Major- -General Vijay Kumar Jetley of India, is backed by the enforcement provisions of Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. This includes authorization to "take the necessary action" to fulfill its additional tasks and to ensure the security and freedom of movement of its personnel.
The U.N. force is also empowered, "within its capabilities and areas of deployment, to afford protection to civilians under imminent threat of physical violence."
UNAMSIL will assume responsibility for security at key locations and government buildings previously guarded by ECOMOG, particularly in Freetown and at major airports, including the international airport at Lungi.
The Security Council resolution strengthening the U.N. force expressed appreciation to ECOMOG "for its indispensable contribution towards the restoration of democracy and the maintenance of peace, security and stability" in Sierra Leone.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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