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Four British paratroopers have been training Sierra Leonean troops in mortar firing in preparation for an African Union mission in Somalia next year.
The team of soldiers, from 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, based in Colchester, flew out to West Africa to complete the live-fire tactical training of the Sierra Leonean troops.
The paratroopers were led by Warrant Officer Class 2 Sergeant Major Dean Stokes, also of The Parachute Regiment and a member of the International Military Assistance Training Team (IMATT). He has been in Sierra Leone twice before on operations, and is struck by the changes:
The Army’s been regenerated,” he said. “I’ve seen a massive turnaround and it’s given me a wealth of satisfaction. That’s why I’ve come again and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.
Sierra Leone is one of West Africa’s poorest countries, and its Armed Forces have been completely restructured since the end of a bloody civil war in 2002.
Now it has pledged soldiers to the African Union Mission in Somalia, deploying around April 2012 - its most ambitious deployment yet.
The course delivered by the British was mentally tough, required physical fitness and involved a demanding night-shoot, but the Sierra Leoneans proved that they could handle it. WO2 Stokes explained why this was necessary:
When they go to Somalia, war-fighting doesn’t stop during the day, so they need to have the capacity to illuminate the area outside their FOBs [forward operating bases],” he said.
Experts in their field, the paratroopers’ own platoon has recently returned from Afghanistan, but the team was impressed with the progress they saw:
This is my first time with the Sierra Leonean Army but it’s been a pleasure,” said team member Corporal David Ingram.
Lieutenant Barrie is the only mortar platoon commander in Sierra Leone, so not too much pressure on him! Once we leave he’s going to have to teach his own guys. But they’re really keen, really enthusiastic, and just want to learn more and more.
At the conclusion of the training, the troops were able to show off their new skills to their top brass, with a parade and demonstration at the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) Training Centre.
The head of training for the RSLAF, Colonel David Taluva, said:
I have seen my dream come true today. I started planning this mortar training last year but we had problems with funding and then IMATT just came in.
Sergeant Major Stokes has been very instrumental in training and I’ve enjoyed working with him. I’m very grateful to IMATT and I want this to continue.