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Nigerian president commits troops to Sierra Leone crisis

President Olusegun Obasanjo makes the pledge during a meeting with Jesse Jackson.

President Olusegun Obasanjo promised U.S. officials Thursday that Nigeria would commit as many peacekeeping troops as necessary to resolve the crisis in Sierra Leone as long as they received logistical and air support from the United States and other countries.

Obasanjo's pledge came during a meeting with Jesse Jackson, President Clinton's special envoy for Africa, who on Thursday began a tour through West Africa to help resolve the crisis in Sierra Leone, where rebels have abducted hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers. Despite signing a peace agreement last year, the Revolutionary United Front has refused to disarm and has clashed with peacekeepers sent to oversee implementation of the accord.

Obasanjo suggested he would prefer his troops work under a strengthened mandate from the United Nations, which currently has 11,100 peacekeepers authorized for Sierra Leone but is expected soon to raise that number to more than 16,000. Obasanjo made it clear the force should be prepared to fight and defeat the rebels if necessary, and Jackson called Obasanjo's pledge of troops "a very bold commitment and one that the U.S. government appreciates."

Nigeria has played a critical role in Sierra Leone before, sending soldiers there in 1997 as part of a West African force to fight the RUF and restore the democratically elected government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. The Nigerians succeeded in pushing the rebels back to a few strongholds and restored Kabbah to office in 1998, before the peace agreement was signed in Lome, Togo, in 1999.

After the Nigerians withdrew to make way for U.N. peacekeepers, however, the rebels took advantage of disorganization in the U.N. force, recapturing territory and repeatedly violating the accord. On Thursday, Obasanjo said the rebels' continued defiance entitled Sierra Leone's government to disregard the numerous concessions made to the RUF at Lome, including amnesty and a top government position for the rebels' leader, Foday Sankoh.

Obasanjo's commitment Thursday was a turnabout of sorts for a man who, during his presidential campaign last year, had called for removing Nigerian forces from Sierra Leone. Although peacekeeping in Sierra Leone has become a sensitive issue in Nigeria and Obasanjo has increasingly been at odds with the country's legislature, he insisted Thursday he could deploy any number of troops to Sierra Leone without lawmakers' approval.

Obasanjo's pledge came as West African military chiefs meeting in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, endorsed a plan to send 3,000 troops to Sierra Leone. Most of these troops likely will be Nigerians, and U.N. officials said they likely would be incorporated in an expanded U.N. force.

Having secured support from Obasanjo, Jackson is due to fly to Liberia today to meet with President Charles Taylor and press for his cooperation in securing the release of 270 U.N. peacekeepers who remain captive. Taylor, a longtime supporter of the brutal RUF rebels, has in recent days helped win the freedom of more than 150 hostages, and Thursday he announced that another 15 had been let go.

Meanwhile, the government in Sierra Leone faces a dilemma over Sankoh, who was captured Wednesday by pro-government forces. Many Sierra Leoneans want Sankoh, whose forces hacked off the limbs of thousands of civilians during their eight-year campaign of terror, tried as a war criminal. But U.N. officials have warned that a trial would endanger the U.N. peacekeepers still being held by his forces and could lead to another all-out war.

Although it was popularly elected, Kabbah's government is widely perceived as weak and ineffective. Failure to move swiftly to punish Sankoh would be perceived as further weakness, senior government officials acknowledge, but a trial could spark attacks by RUF forces that the government would be hard pressed to fend off without help from a strong international force.

"The Lome agreement is still very much alive," Attorney General Solomon Berewa said in a news conference Thursday in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital. "Foday Sankoh has done a lot of things that caused him to forfeit the privileges under that agreement, but no decision has been made as to whether we will prosecute him. The government can't act unilaterally or do anything without consultation, though the population would like it to be otherwise. We need to find a middle road between vengeance and leniency."

Ibrahim Ture is one of those who is angry and does not want a middle ground. "I would say 90 percent of the people hate the Kabbah government because it has always been weak, it has never done anything to the RUF," he said, sitting in his car in Freetown. "They signed an agreement that led to where we are now because they were afraid of Sankoh, and they are still afraid of him. The man killed thousands of people. How can they say political consideration may make him not have a trial?"

Sidiki Gassma, 31, whose brother was executed by the rebels when they attacked the capital in January 1999, said she believes Sankoh should be displayed publicly, his arms and legs chopped off, but not allowed to die.

"Then (Sankoh) would know how people have suffered because of him," Gassma said. "If the government doesn't punish him, they are as bad as he is."