Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives in Sierra Leone

British Prime Minister Tony Blair waves as he arrives at Lungi Airport in Sierra Leone, May 30, 2007.

FREETOWN (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Tony Blair called on Western countries on Wednesday to finance, train and equip African peacekeeping troops so they could intervene to end conflicts on the continent like the one in Sudan's Darfur.

Blair made the call a day after U.S. President George W. Bush imposed new sanctions on Sudan and sought support for an international arms embargo against the government in Khartoum to try to halt what he called the genocide in Darfur.

Visiting Sierra Leone on a farewell tour of Africa before he stands down next month, Blair was welcomed as a hero for sending troops to the former British colony in May 2000 as rebels advanced on the capital Freetown during a civil war.

In a special ceremony, he was made a paramount chief of the small West African state, gaining the title "Bai Shebora N'Torfla," which means "chief of peace."

At a news conference at Lungi international airport with the presidents of Sierra Leone and Liberia, Blair said he believed Africa had a responsibility to intervene in conflicts and humanitarian crises taking place on African soil.

"The African Union does have to have a stronger peacekeeping capability. We in the West and the wealthy countries have a responsibility to finance it, to train it, to make sure it is properly equipped," said Blair.

He said rich nations should reinforce this commitment to back African peacekeepers at the G8 summit in Germany next week.

Britain wanted the European Union to establish a $50 million draw-down fund to finance an African Union rapid reaction force, according to a note distributed by British officials. London was ready to commit $10 million to prime the fund, said the note.


Blair said there was a reluctance to see non-African troops going into Sudan's western Darfur region, where more than 200,000 people have died and 2 million been driven from their homes by a political and ethnic conflict raging since 2003.

He said that had the African Union previously had the capacity to intervene effectively in Darfur, the crisis could have been resolved "some years ago." The conflict pits Sudanese troops and allied militias against Darfuri rebels.

Sudan has been resisting international pressure to allow a proposed large U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur, though more recently Khartoum has appeared to give ground on allowing the U.N. to bolster a struggling African Union mission.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf said African governments now accepted they had to act in cases of war or humanitarian crisis.

"Look at the sea change in Africa: 20 years ago there would have been absolutely no intervention, military or otherwise because there was a standing African policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries," she said.

Blair, Johnson-Sirleaf and Sierra Leonean President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah later inspected a parade of local troops.

While Blair's critics say history will judge him harshly for Britain's involvement in Iraq, Sierra Leone is popularly seen as a high point of his foreign policy: his government cites it as a model of what can be done to save a failing state.

His popularity among Sierra Leoneans is high.

"Tony Blair is a hero," said journalist Augustus Kamara, who has named his son Tony Blair Kamara.

In the ceremony making him a paramount chief, Blair was seated on a wooden throne before some 20 traditional rulers gathered under two cotton trees at Mahera township, near Lungi.

A traditional brown robe was briefly placed on his shoulders. He slipped it off later, telling his hosts: "I think it looks better on you guys than on me."

Link to Blair urges West to back African peacekeeping force | Reuters.ca