After long preparations, the first group of the Russian servicemen of the UN peacekeeping forces flew to Sierra-Leone on the morning of July 24 from Sheremetyevo-2 airport on an airliner of Air France. In this country, Russian combat helicopter pilots will take part in peacekeeping operations conducted by the UN forces.

Major General Anatoly Surtsukov, the army aviation commander, commands the group of 10 pilots. When the group arrives in Sierra-Leone, it will immediately begin to carry out its tasks, including evaluation of the situation, reconnaissance of terrain, negotiations with local authorities and the UN administration about conditions of residence of the main group of the Russian military contingent, organization of its reception and housing. When these tasks are completed, three members of the group including Surtsukov will return to Russia. The major peacekeeping group will arrive in Sierra-Leone on airplanes of the military transport aviation and on ships later.

It is known that making the decision about sending of the Russian military contingent to Africa was not simple. On June 7, when the Federation Council debated this issue, a number of its members spoke against sending peacekeepers to Sierra-Leone. President Murtaza Rakhimov of Bashkortostan has said, “Our guys have nothing to do there. We need to enforce order in our own home.” Naturally, Rakhimov was referring to Chechnya. Almost one-half of his colleagues shared his opinion. The Federation Council approved the proposal of Vladimir Putin regarding sending of peacekeepers to Sierra-Leone only on the second attempt, and the number of council members who voted for it was only by two greater than the number of members who voted against it. Half a month later, the Foreign Ministry spoke against this action and the mass media reported that Russian soldiers would not fly to Sierra-Leone, because there they would actually take part in combat operations and could get killed. It is difficult to say what happened over the last two weeks, but it is obvious that Russian peacekeepers will take part in the UN operation in Sierra-Leone.

It is planned to send four Mi-24 helicopters and 115 servicemen to this country.

Lieutenant General Vyacheslav Pismenny, the former deputy commander of army aviation and participant of many local conflicts in the world and in the CIS, and a Hero of Russia, says that “for Russia it is beneficial to send peacekeepers to the hot spots. First, this reduces the contribution of the country to the UN treasury. Second, our servicemen will earn money and they have gotten used to flying in combat conditions.”

Pismenny emphasizes that Russia will send not military transport, but combat helicopters to Africa for the first time. The general says that “it will be hot there.” Meanwhile, judging by the opinion of pilots of a helicopter regiment of the Moscow Military District, they are not scared. The quantity of volunteers willing to go to the hot spot exceeds the overall quantity of the servicemen required for the peacekeeping contingent to be sent to Africa. All people, who are enlisted for the peacekeeping operation, have experience of operations in hot spots in the world and in the CIS. Many pilots have also been tested in Chechnya at least for four to six months.

Russian peacekeepers will have to operate in Sierra-Leone together with the military contingents which arrived mostly from third-world countries. Three additional battalions are currently being delivered to Sierra-Leone from Jordan, India, and Bangladesh to reinforce the UN contingent to 11,000 people. This is a big contingent for a country with the population of not more than 5 million. Defense Ministry officials say that the peacekeepers in this country have the right to open fire for self-defense purposes if they are attacked. According to Russian military, the crews of the Mi-24 will be able to defend themselves.

Russian military is also convinced that Russian helicopters suit to accomplishment of missions in Africa best of all. They can operate in any weather and round the clock. Being fitted out with navigation systems they can quickly find orientation on the terrain and fly to a necessary area.

The PR service of the Defense Ministry explains the interest of the UN in Russian pilots saying that they have a very high reputation in the world. On the other hand, UN officials are concerned about a possible failure of the peacekeeping operation in Sierra-Leone like, for example, this has happened in Angola, where the UN has not manage to reconcile the warring parties. That is why inclusion of combat-ready and professional units into the UN forces is very important.

UN General Secretary Kofi Annan has said that, if the international community fails in the peacekeeping operation in Sierra-Leone, this will “very negatively influence” the peacekeeping activities of the UN in entire Africa. He adds,” We need to necessarily use lessons of the past to try to regulate the current crisis. Withdrawal of the peacekeeping forces from Sierra-Leone is not even proposed. On the contrary, we are doing our best to reinforce out contingent.” Annan emphasizes, “The UN forces in Sierra-Leone have a clear mandate, that is why we will persistently obey it.”

However, it is known that the US, France, and UK did not support the request of the UN General Secretary to send their troops for resolving of the conflict to Sierra-Leone. These countries referred to the limited budget capabilities and unwillingness to interfere into the conflicts having an insignificant scale. Russia evidently has enough budget resources, has it not? Withdrawal of the West African peacekeeping contingent from Sierra-Leone is currently being accomplished. This contingent was based on Nigerian servicemen, who plaid the key role in restoration of civil rule of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. It were they who contributed to ending of war against insurgents of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and detachments of the junta of Lieutenant-Colonel Johnny Paul Koromah overthrown in 1998.

Over the last six months, West African peacekeepers in Sierra-Leone have been gradually replaced with UN peacekeepers according to the resolution of the UN Security Council. The task of the peacekeepers is disarming of militants of the RUF and normalization of the situation in the country after a decade of civil war.

UN peacekeepers are regularly attacked and robbed by former soldiers of the junta and rebels of the RUF. In August 1999, a UN delegation including a Russian military observer, was taken as hostages. In April, 2000, UN peacekeepers were attacked in Kenema. In May, militants captured 92 UN representatives including four Russian citizens (the crew of a UN helicopter), and a few peacekeepers from the Kenyan battalion were killed. According to various estimates, at present there are about 45,000 militants in Sierra-Leone, and many of them refuse to obey conditions of the Lomey agreements and to give up arms. Less than 50% of all militants have come to the posts for arms collection. The peacekeepers themselves, although their mandate enables them to open effective fire for self-defense, normally try not to conflict with militants, saying that their mission is “peace keeping,” and not “peace enforcement”.

For instance, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the separate airborne brigade of about 2,000 men strong fulfills peacekeeping tasks within the multinational forces. After the aggression of NATO against Yugoslavia the Russian brigade was withdrawn from subordination to NATO. A Russian military contingent of 3,500 men strong is stationed in Kosovo. The Balkan region is a strategic territory in Europe. The US and NATO plan to keep their forces there on a long-term basis. Russia also has its own interests in the area. It is one of the few countries which has condemned the aggression of NATO against Yugoslavia, and demands observing of UN Security Council resolution 1244, and attraction of Belgrade to peacekeeping operations in the region.