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Sierra Leone's new beginning

There is some good news out of Africa. The U.N. forces and British paratroops sent into Sierra Leone have successfully evacuated foreigners, moved children to places of safety, secured the streets of Freetown, the capital city, and scattered the insurgents of the Revolutionary United Front who, despite a "peace agreement" signed last July, have been battling the ragged remnants of the Sierra Leonean government. Moreover, a number of the U.N. hostages held by the RUF have been freed, and RUF leader Foday Sankoh has been captured. Given the heat of his own countrymen's rage against Sankoh, taking him alive, and delivering him alive to a prison in Freetown so that he can stand trial for war crimes, is a major accomplishment in itself.

Of course, the current peace in Sierra Leone is subject to unanticipated setbacks. There are still more than 100 hostages, some reportedly wounded, held by RUF fighters over the border in Liberia. RUF guerrillas still hold the diamond fields _ Sierra Leone's source of revenue. But there is also real cause for optimism. U.N., Sierra Leonean and British forces worked reasonably well together. Despite a testosterone-fueled battle of words between some Nigerian peacekeepers and British paratroopers, the undermanned, undersupplied U.N. troops were glad to be aided by British personnel and weapons, as well as the security of British warships lying offshore.

Though the British government kept insisting that its troops were in Sierra Leone only to evacuate foreign nationals and "aid" the United Nations, it's clear they did a great deal more. In fact, this is one instance in which "mission creep" has been successful. British troops, as well as U.N. peacekeepers, became more aggressive, taking territory from the RUF and helping to arm and organize the tattered, hungry and demoralized government soldiers.

Despite carping from the Conservative opposition, the British government had the sense to allow commanders on the ground to aid U.N. forces in any way they thought best, without checking with the spin doctors first. One British officer said, "We were not going to allow this to become Somalia."

So far, so good. But there's a long way to go. Somehow, the diamond smuggling, which has been operating through the RUF's ally Liberia, must be stopped. Three-million displaced people must be housed and fed. Foday Sankoh must be tried and civil government restored. Despite their seeming elasticity, the British and their warships won't stay forever, so the U.N. peacekeepers need to be reinforced with properly equipped troops. Then maybe Sierra Leone can really start to get back on its feet as a nation, and the United Nations will have a success story to point to.