ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast - A little more than a year ago, the United States was a major backer of a peace accord that brought a horrifically violent guerrilla force into a power-sharing government in Sierra Leone and gave the rebels amnesty in a bid for peace.
Those same guerrillas broke the peace and went on killing. Now, U.S. soldiers are in Africa to train and equip U.N. peacekeepers to counter the rebels, while U.S. diplomats have helped win U.N. approval for a special war crimes tribunal.
Washington's shift in policy has delighted officials in Sierra Leone - a lush, diamond-rich country on Africa's west coast - who nonetheless note it has taken the United States a while to ''wake up.''
The change also has been largely welcomed in the U.S. Congress, where, despite a reluctance to increase U.S. spending on U.N. peacekeeping, there has been criticism of the administration's lack of engagement in Sierra Leone. The brutality of the Revolutionary United Front rebels' tactics is part of the reason: Since the civil war began in 1991, the rebels have systematically killed and maimed tens of thousands of people in a bid to gain control of the government and the country's lucrative diamond-mining region.
''This is a step that comes very late in the struggle to end the terrorism in Sierra Leone, but it is nevertheless an important step,'' said the chairman of the House International Relations Africa subcommittee, Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif.
The Pentagon is considering outfitting up to seven battalions of West African troops, including five from Nigeria and one from Ghana, U.S. State Department officials have said.
The equipment would be part of a $20 million aid package pledged by President Clinton to strengthen the U.N. effort in Sierra Leone, where 500 peacekeepers were taken hostage in May when the rebels reignited the civil war. The training of the Nigerians in their home country is expected to start before the end of the month, when Clinton plans a state visit there.
Sierra Leoneans, however, ask why the United States couldn't have supported the Nigerians three years ago.
At that point, the Nigerians were leading a West African intervention force that ousted a military junta allied with the rebels and restored the elected government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. But in December 1998 the rebels struck back - killing thousands and systematically hacking off the hands, legs, ears and noses of many more in a campaign of terror as they swept across the country and briefly held parts of the capital.
''They should have done this long ago,'' said Reginald Coker, a 27-year-old university student in the capital, Freetown, said of the U.S. support. ''The harm has been done now to the people of Sierra Leone.''
At the time, however, Nigeria was under military rule and subject to international sanctions. Civilian rule was only restored in May last year. There was also concern about the human rights record of the West African intervention force, known as ECOMOG.
Instead of backing ECOMOG's campaign to crush the rebels, the United States helped engineer the accord signed in July last year in Lome, Togo, which brought the rebels into the government and gave them amnesty for past crimes.
The deal included giving rebel leader Foday Sankoh, whose movement derives most of its funds from diamonds, the chairmanship of a committee overseeing the country's mineral resources.
''It seemed to be an attempt to get peace on the cheap,'' said Sierra Leone's information minister, Julius Spencer.
In the months that followed, ECOMOG withdrew and the United Nations slowly assembled a peacekeeping force to take its place. But when the last Nigerian troops pulled out in early May, the rebels overwhelmed the poorly equipped and badly trained U.N. peacekeepers and began advancing toward Freetown.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed to Western powers - including the United States and Britain, Sierra Leone's former colonial master - to send their better-trained forces to help.
But with the specter of failed U.N. missions in Somalia and Rwanda still looming large, there is little support in the United States for sending American troops into African conflicts. The United States declined Annan's request.
Britain, on the other hand, sent 1,000 soldiers to Freetown. While the troops ostensibly went to evacuate foreigners and secure the airport, their presence did much to stabilize the situation.
The hostages were eventually released. Meanwhile, a ragtag alliance of pro-government forces, backed by Britain, began pushing the rebels from Freetown.
When the British forces withdrew in mid-June, they left behind soldiers to train Sierra Leone army recruits. Britain also donated arms and equipment and sent military advisers.
In Congress, criticism of U.S. policy grew as the rebels relaunched their war. Meanwhile, Britain quietly pressured the Americans to take a more active role, State Department officials said on condition of anonymity.
Gradually, the United States changed course.
Besides agreeing to help the peacekeeping mission, the United States now says Sankoh should be tried as a war criminal. He was captured and imprisoned in May.
The United States also backed a recent Security Council ban on the purchase of Sierra Leone diamonds that don't have a government certificate.
''American policy makers seem to have woken up now,'' Spencer said.
The Clinton administration denies there has been a shift, saying it has long been U.S. policy to help African countries resolve their own conflicts.
Many Sierra Leoneans, however, remain skeptical of the United States' commitment to their country. They want America to train Sierra Leonean soldiers, and they want U.S. aid to rebuild the shattered nation.
''The Americans are trying to save face,'' said Frederica Harding, 33, a Freetown housewife. ''They could do much more than train an external force.''