Mercenaries take two drubbings Zaire and Papua: Hiring foreign troops proves to be the problem, not solution.

March 24, 1997

WITH THE DECLINE OF ARMIES after the Cold War, and the end of white rule in southern Africa, trained troops went on the market, only too available for hire by whoever might pay.

Mercenaries from Europe were conspicuous in the Croatian-Bosnian militia in the early '90s, and others from the mujahedeen of Afghanistan in the Bosnian forces. A quixotic brief seizure of the Comoros Islands two years ago, by a French senior citizen who had invaded a half-dozen countries in his career, raised the specter of government by mercenary in one weak country after another.

Two spectacular defeats of mercenary forces by the troops they were meant to train, in recent days, may kill that fad. It would be a good thing. There is no trouble in any country that cannot be made more brutal and chaotic by adding mercenary fuel to the flames.

Mobutu Sese Seku, the dictator of Zaire, hired French and Serb mercenaries after having not paid his army. He sent the Serbs to defend the crucial Congo River port of Kisangani from Zairian rebels. Mercenaries who may have been war criminals in Bosnia behaved as such in Kisangani, murdering on whim. Zairian soldiers who were unwilling to fight rebels turned their guns on the mercenaries, hastening their departure downriver to Kinshasa and, presumably, Serbia.

The prime minister of Papua-New Guinea (the eastern half of New Guinea island in the South Pacific), Sir Julius Chan, hired a British consultant firm called Sandline to train his army to suppress a secessionist rebellion on the nearby island of Bougainville. The army under Brig. Gen. Jerry Singirok objected to the 70 instructors from Sandline and to blood-spilling on Bougainville.

In quick order, Sir Julius sacked General Singirok, the army mutinied and routed the mercenaries, mobs looted Port Moresby, tension rose between the army and police, New Zealand called for a peaceful solution on Bougainville and the mob demanded the resignation of Sir Julius.

These tragedies, large and small, are not over. But in each, the mercenaries were defeated. For a despot, hiring such helpers is a less attractive option than it seemed two weeks ago. And that should cheer Americans. It was only some 220 years ago that the British colonial masters thought that hiring German mercenary troops would be the answer here, only to find out it was the problem.

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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