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Civilian Casualties from British Military: The Sierra Leone Intervention

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in the Sierra Leone Intervention.

When did this conflict occur?

7th May, 2000^ – September, 2001*

^ – The British intervention force landed in Freetown International Airport on the 7th of May, 2000; however, the origins of the Sierra Leonean Civil War can be traced back to March of 1991 when Revolutionary United Front forces crossed into Sierra Leone from Liberia. [1]

*- Though the final British Short-Term Training Team was withdrawn from Sierra Leone in September of 2001, the British military retained a permanent presence in the country through the International Military Assistance Training Team until 2013. [2]

What is the background to this conflict?

In March of 1991, the Revolutionary United Front, a Sierra Leonean rebel movement ostensibly dedicated to combating endemic state corruption, crossed over from Liberia and began an insurgency against an increasingly unstable national government. The RUF’s goal, however, soon shifted to controlling mineral rich areas such as the Eastern province of Kono, and the group began a relentless campaign of brutality and intimidation against civilians trapped within. [3] Frustrated by the government’s inability to tackle the RUF, a series of military coups followed and culminated in the rise of Ahmad Kabbah and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council to power. Kabbah implemented a power-sharing agreement with the RUF, and the new government turned its attention towards combating a Nigerian-led intervention force known as the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). [4] ECOMOG, however, succeeded in repulsing the RUF and AFRC, and, in 1999, the conflict reached an apparent end. The Lomé Accord between the RUF and the ECOMOG-backed national government outlined the political future of post-war Sierra Leone: Kabbah’s power was restored, RUF leader Foday Sankoh received a position in the transitional administration, and RUF combatants under his command were granted amnesty as well as positions in the new Sierra Leonean Armed Forces. [5] Despite this, continued obstruction from RUF leaders, fearful of decreased influence under the new government, in addition to an underfunded disarmament and demobilisation program jeopardised the Lomé Accord which collapsed into a new wave of fighting the UN Mission in Sierra Leone found itself ill-prepared to contain. Fearing for the safety of its expatriate community, the United Kingdom initiated Operation Palliser in May of 2000. [6] Though originally a short-term non-combatant evacuation operation, the British commitment to Sierra Leone soon expanded to include the deployment of Short-Term Training Teams, aimed at providing advisory and mentoring support to a nascent Sierra Leonean Army, which remained in-country until September of the following year.

What role did British military forces play?

The initial British military commitment to Operation Palliser centred on the Airborne Battlegroup drawn from 16th Air Assault Brigade. Its core ground combat capability lay in 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, which deployed in its entirety with the exception of A Company, in addition to D Company of 2 PARA and elements of the brigade’s Pathfinder Platoon. [7] Landing in Freetown on 7th of May, 2000, the Airborne Battlegroup quickly secured the international airport as well as evacuee assembly areas from which British citizens could be transported to awaiting RAF aircraft. The Airborne Battlegroup was replaced by the Amphibious Ready Group, a slower moving, albeit more heavily equipped, force drawn from 42 Commando Royal Marines, by the 14th of May. [8] With the security environment in the immediate area of operations stabilised, British infantrymen from 2nd Battalion, the Royal Anglian Regiment, and 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment, deployed to Sierra Leone as part of the Short-Term Training Team. Tasked with effectively raising a national army, the STTTs participated in all aspects of screening, recruitment, and training of Sierra Leonean servicemembers while also undertaking presence patrols and liaising with UN forces stationed in the country. It was on one such patrol that elements of 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment, were taken captive by a local armed faction known as the West Side Boys. Held for over two weeks, five Royal Irish soldiers and their Sierra Leonean liaison officer were released in the first joint hostage rescue operation between the 22nd Special Air Service and the Parachute Regiment on the 10th of September, 2000. [9] British troops remained in Sierra Leone after this incident but mounted no further offensive missions until the withdrawal of the force the following year.

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

Yes. Over the course of the Sierra Leone Intervention, there was 1 confirmed killing of a civilian by British military forces. In contrast to this civilian death, 5 British military personnel died in the conflict, with 1 of these deaths being due to hostile action. [10]

Are there any trends or incidents of note?

The sole civilian death as a result of British military action in Sierra Leone occurred during Operation Barras, the hostage rescue operation launched by D Squadron, the 22nd Special Air Service and 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment on the 10th of September, 2000:

  • 10th September, 2000: fifteen days after the seizure of eleven members of 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment, and a Sierra Leonean liaison officer on a Short-Term Training Team mission by the West Side Boys militia, British forces launched a hostage rescue operation. Known as Operation Barras, the rescue force consisted of 130 members of A Company, 1 PARA and 40 personnel from D Squadron, 22nd Special Air Service. While 1 PARA conducted a raid on the West Side Boys barracks in Magbeni, D Squadron assaulted the nearby village of Gberi Bana to rescue the hostages. In the process, a Sierra Leonean teacher named Braima Phohba, held by the West Side Boys alongside 22 other civilians, attempted to flee and was fatally injured in the firefight between the D Squadron assault force and the West Side Boys. [11, 12]

Endnotes:

[1] Sierra Leone Profile – Timeline, BBC News, 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-14094419

[2] Sierra Leonean army comes of age under British direction, Gov.UK, 2011, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/sierra-leonean-army-comes-of-age-under-british-direction

[3] Roberson, Walter G. British Military Intervention into Sierra Leone: A Case Study (Kansas: US Army Command and General Staff College, 200): 48.

[4] Iron, Richard. Rapid Intervention and Conflict Resolution: British Military Intervention in Sierra Leone 2000-2002 (Canberra: Australian Army Journal, 2019): 38.

[5] Peace Agreement between the Government of Sierra Leone and the RUF (Lomé Peace Agreement), United Nations Peacemaker, 2019, https://peacemaker.un.org/sierraleone-lome-agreement99

[6] SIERRA LEONE (OPERATIONS PALLISER AND BARRAS), ParaData, 2022, https://www.paradata.org.uk/event/sierra-leone-operations-palliser-and-barras

[7] Fowler, Will. Certain Death in Sierra Leone: The SAS and Operation Barras 2000 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2010): 7-8.

[8] Dorman, Andrew. Blair’s Successful War: British Military Intervention in Sierra Leone (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009): 92.

[9]  Dobbins, James et al., “Sierra Leone”, in Europe’s Role in Nation-Building: From the Balkans to the Congo (California: RAND Corporation, 2008): 34.

[10] UK armed forces Deaths: Operational deaths post World War II, Ministry of Defence, 2021, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/972075/20210325_UK_armed_forces_Operational_deaths_post_World_War_II-O.pdf

[11] Fowler, Certain Death in Sierra Leone, 53.

[12] McGreal, Chris, “Leader of West Side Boys’ new direction”, The Guardian, 2000, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2000/sep/12/sierraleone