U.S. to Train Africans for Sierra Leone

The Clinton administration is planning to send more than 200 U.S. Army special forces soldiers to Nigeria, where they would help train thousands of West African troops for peacekeeping duty in Sierra Leone.

About 50 U.S. soldiers and planners from the U.S. European Command have been in Nigeria and Ghana since late July to assess what they would need to train soldiers there for peace keeping missions, communications, and combat duty. That assessment is now “complete,” White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said today.

Some preliminary training should start this month, taking place mostly in Ghana and Nigeria, a senior administration official told ABCNEWS. Eventually, up to 6,000 soldiers from Nigeria, Ghana and possibly Senegal would be involved.

They would not operate under the United Nations, but instead under a Nigerian-led organization called the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group.

But it could be mid-September before a full-blown training program is under way. The administration first must determine whether the forces it plans to train have not perpetrated any human rights violations, officials said.

And even then, it will take two to six months to crank out the first Nigerian graduates of what will be the largest U.S. military training program of this type ever attempted in a single African nation.

Training on U.S. Equipment

The troops will be trained on equipment to be provided by the United States. President Clinton has authorized $20 million in military aid for African peacekeeping troops — $2 million in cash and $18 million to pay for everything from underwear and army boots to radios, trucks, medical supplies and machine guns.

The U.S. review found the Nigerian troops to be in good physical shape and highly motivated, but completely lacking basic equipment, a senior Pentagon official said today. Until recently, the Nigerian government kept its troops under-equipped and under-trained, apparently in order to keep them from threatening its authority.

The gift of American equipment comes with a mandatory U.S. training program attached, the official said.

“We now have a team in Nigeria and part of the team is also in Ghana, … reviewing what their equipment needs are and what their training needs are for using the equipment,” Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said.

‘No Shift’ in U.S. Policy

The troops would be assigned to help enforce a peace agreement signed in Lomé, Togo, last year. That agreement, between Sierra Leone’s elected president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, and rebel leader Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front, exploded into international prominence in May when the RUF kidnapped 500 of the U.N. peacekeepers meant to supervise its implementation.

Those peacekeepers were later released. Sankoh, arrested in late May and flown away in a British helicopter, is reportedly in Sierra Leonean custody. The RUF is estimated at 6,000 fighters.

U.S. officials disputed a New York Times report today that described the decision to train African troops as a shift in U.S. policy. The report quoted a senior administration official as saying the administration had gone through an “agonizing re-appraisal” of its Sierra Leone position.

State Department envoy Thomas Pickering went to Nigeria a month ago to publicly lay the groundwork for the U.S. role in troop training, officials pointed out.

“This is not a sudden change,” an administration official told ABCNEWS today. “It’s been our plan all along to send troops to train. But the level of commitment had not fully been decided, because that is a deliberative process.”

Officials: Not a U.N. Snub Nor does the decision to train African troops — rather than U.N. peacekeepers from all over the world — mean the United States has become disillusioned with U.N. peacekeeping, officials said.

“No, I think the U.S. commitment to U.N. peacekeeping is unmistakable and undeniable,” Lockhart said. But he stressed that Clinton, on a recent trip to Africa, “talked about the importance of a rapid response force in the region, of using regional troops. And we think this is an example of a place where this approach works best.”

Clinton will visit Nigeria Aug. 25-27.

ABCNEWS’ John McWethy, Rebecca Cooper and Barbara Starr in Washington contributed to this report.