/ 15 March 2008

Sierra Leone hopes to ‘downsize’ army

Sierra Leone’s military chiefs are working on means to downsize from its current 10 000 soldiers to 8 500, Defence Minister Palo Conteh said on Friday, according to a state radio report.

”We cannot allow a large army …We have to downsize to a lean army that can react quickly to a given situation,” he said.

Sierra Leone is a deeply poor country, despite being rich in diamonds, gold and other minerals.

An arms-for-diamonds trade was one factor that prolonged a brutal civil war between 1991 and 2002, which left devastation in its wake with tens of thousands having their limbs amputated.

”We will start with those wounded in action as some of them are blind or have lost limbs,” the minister added. ”The second batch will be the mentally ill and finally the chronically ill.”

Once this group of about 520 soldiers has left, the military plans to shed troops ”who have reached the retirement age of 55 and lastly those who would volunteer to retire”, Conteh said.

Conteh pointed out, however, that the military has ”made a commitment to the United Nations to provide a battalion of 850 men whenever we are needed for peace-keeping operations worldwide”.

”We have also an Ecowas [Economic Community of West African States] stand-by force already in training and waiting for the green light to be sent to any trouble spot in Africa under the African Union,” he added.

The 15-nation Ecowas aims for regional financial and economic cooperation, and has a military arm.

Nigerian troops were deployed in Sierra Leone at one stage during the civil war, before United Nations peacekeepers arrived. — Sapa-AFP