Four British paratroopers have been training Sierra Leonean troops in mortar firing in preparation for an African Union mission in Somalia next year.
The team of soldiers, from 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, based in Colchester, flew out to West Africa to complete the live-fire tactical training of the Sierra Leonean troops, the UK Ministry of Defence said.
The paratroopers were led by Warrant Officer Class 2 Sergeant Major Dean Stokes, also of The Parachute Regiment and a member of the International Military Assistance Training Team (IMATT). He has been in Sierra Leone twice before on operations, and is struck by the changes:
“The Army’s been regenerated,” he said. “I’ve seen a massive turnaround and it’s given me a wealth of satisfaction. That’s why I’ve come again and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Sierra Leone is one of West Africa’s poorest countries, and its Armed Forces have been completely restructured since the end of a bloody civil war in 2002.
Now it has pledged soldiers to the African Union Mission in Somalia, deploying around April 2012 – its most ambitious deployment yet.
The course delivered by the British was mentally tough, required physical fitness and involved a demanding night-shoot, but the Sierra Leoneans proved that they could handle it. WO2 Stokes explained why this was necessary:
“When they go to Somalia, war-fighting doesn’t stop during the day, so they need to have the capacity to illuminate the area outside their FOBs [forward operating bases],” he said.
Experts in their field, the paratroopers’ own platoon has recently returned from Afghanistan, but the team was impressed with the progress they saw:
“This is my first time with the Sierra Leonean Army but it’s been a pleasure,” said team member Corporal David Ingram.
“Lieutenant Barrie is the only mortar platoon commander in Sierra Leone, so not too much pressure on him! Once we leave he’s going to have to teach his own guys. But they’re really keen, really enthusiastic, and just want to learn more and more.”
At the conclusion of the training, the troops were able to show off their new skills to their top brass, with a parade and demonstration at the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) Training Centre.
The head of training for the RSLAF, Colonel David Taluva, said that, “I have seen my dream come true today. I started planning this mortar training last year but we had problems with funding and then IMATT just came in. Sergeant Major Stokes has been very instrumental in training and I’ve enjoyed working with him. I’m very grateful to IMATT and I want this to continue.”
Six years ago, Sierra Leone was a failing state receiving assistance from 10 000 United Nations troops. Now, with the republic’s growing stability and the assistance of foreign military mentors, its armed forces are ready to take part in peacekeeping operations. For nearly ten years the International Military Assistance Training Team has been mentoring the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces.
The RSLAF, with its 10 500 personnel, aimed to support peace support operations for ECOWAS, the AU and the UN in 2007, but this slipped to late 2009, when a Sierra Leonean reconnaissance company was deployed to Darfur as part of UNAMID. International donors and the Government of Sierra Leone provided the US$6.5 million required to equip the unit and build the base camp in-theatre.
Earlier in November it was announced that Sierra Leone would send 850 peacekeepers to support the African Union’s mission in Somalia next year while Djibouti will send a similar number this month.
There are currently 9 000 AMISOM troops in Somalia, including a police element – all of them from Uganda and Burundi. Peacekeepers would like to add another 3 000 soldiers to bring the peacekeeping force to its authorized maximum strength of 12 000. The New York Times reports that Uganda is sending another 2 000 soldiers to join the peacekeeping force in Mogadishu.
“Our forces have been very adaptive, adapting to the terrain, fighting in built-up areas,” said Lieutenant Colonel Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for the AU peacekeeping force. “But it’s been difficult.”
Augustine Mahiga, the United Nations envoy for Somalia, stressed the need to bring the strength of the African Union peacekeeping force in the Horn of Africa country to the 12 000 troops mandated by the Security Council, adding that the force also needs the capacity to deal with unconventional tactics of war.
Mahiga said that Al Shabaab insurgents, who are opposed to Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), were increasingly resorting to unconventional warfare, especially the use of bombs and other explosives to carry out acts of terrorism against civilians.
“It is, of course, quite a challenge and in a sense an important reminder to the troop-contributing countries and to the international community that we must expedite the deployment of the remaining 3 000 troops which have been authorized by the Security Council,” Mahiga said.
Mahiga said the recent decision to deploy Kenyan forces in Somalia was a bilateral one between the two countries and was in no way related to the deployment of AMISOM, which has a Security Council mandate.
Kenya sent its troops across the border into Somalia last month to crush the al Shabaab militants it blames for a wave of kidnappings in Kenya and frequent cross-border attacks. Since then Kenya has been plagued by a string of attacks along its northeastern border area, as well as in the capital.
Kenya has long been alarmed by its lawless neighbour, awash with weapons and mired in conflict for two decades.
To keep peace on the frontier, it has quietly supported the birth of a semi-autonomous Somali province dubbed ‘Jubaland’, comprising three Somali regions bordering Kenya. The status of Jubaland, also sometimes called Azania, is not clear: Somalia’s government says it does not support the Jubaland initiative.
Somalia has been mired in anarchy since warlords toppled military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Foreign troops have deployed to Somalia since 1992, with little success. 37,000 troops under the Unified Task Force (UNITAF) led by the United States were sent to Somalia in 1992/1993 and in 1993 a second UN force, UNOSOM II, took over from the US troops. The UN mission was dealt a fatal blow when 18 US rangers sent to hunt down warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed were killed in Mogadishu. Remaining US forces withdrew and UNOSOM II was withdrawn in March 1995, leaving the local warlords to fight on. Some 150 UN personnel were killed during the mission.
In June 2006, Islamist militia loyal to the Somalia Islamic Courts Council seized Mogadishu after defeating US-backed warlords. With tacit US approval, Somalia’s neighbour Ethiopia sent troops to defend the interim government in December 2006. The Ethiopian force advanced rapidly, taking Mogadishu and driving the Islamists to Somalia’s southern tip.
Since Ethiopian troops withdrew in January 2009, the biggest threat has come from al Shabaab which controls much of southern and central Somalia.
Kenya says it will end its military campaign against the al Shabaab rebels in Somalia when it is satisfied it has stripped the group of its capacity to attack across the border.
Although the African Union has a mandate for 12 000 peacekeepers, officials say 20 000 troops are needed to pacify the whole of Somalia, which has not had a functioning central government for twenty years.