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British get troops set for Sierra Leone stay

The British are coming, at least for a while, and most people in this faded former colony in West Africa couldn't be happier.

About 700 amphibious troops flexed their muscle Monday on a British helicopter warship patrolling 9 miles offshore in the Atlantic. Fighter jets zipped overhead. Attack helicopters hummed across the flight deck. And in the operations center below, an admiral from London mapped out strategy with his commanders.

"We are all ready and worked up," Lt. Col. Andy Salmon said. "We are keen to do whatever task comes our way."

The display of military readiness comes days before the Royal Marines are expected to get the go-ahead from the British government to move ashore, where 700 paratroops set up positions two weeks ago. It was played before a contingent of mostly British and Sierra Leonean journalists, with the idea of winning over both national audiences.

By most accounts, it was an easy sell.

"It is very impressive that Britain is doing all of this for our little country," said Joshua Nicol, who covered the maritime show for the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service. "It really makes us feel that the British are behind us."

Just last year, big Western governments such as Britain and the United States were criticized for caring too much about places like Kosovo and too little about places like Sierra Leone.

A civil war that started here in 1991 has been one of the most brutal in Africa, with the Revolutionary United Front terrorizing residents.

Humanitarian assistance has been forthcoming from NATO countries, but military engagement was not deemed an option. Even today, the U.S. government is unwilling to commit troops here or elsewhere in Africa.

The memory of Somalia, where 18 U.S. troops were killed in 1993, remains too strong.

Until the arrival of U.N. peacekeepers, a regional force of Nigerians and troops from Sierra Leone's other West African neighbors was left to stop the atrocities on the ground.

Britain's amphibious combat force from the Ocean and seven other naval vessels at sea would join _ and ultimately relieve _ a battalion of British paratroops, who have been stationed at the Lungi International Airport outside Freetown for two weeks.

British defense officials say the expected deployment of the marines might last only several weeks. Vice Adm. Ian Garnett, chief of joint operations, said the intention is to give the United Nations time to get its force back on its feet and then ship out.