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Sunday, 6 January, 2002, 11:38 GMT
Fighters 'disarmed' in Sierra Leone
RUF fighter demobilises
The UN has been overseeing the programme
The United Nations' peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone says it has completed the disarmament of all but a few of the country's remaining fighters.

Oluyemi Adeniji, the UN's special representative, confirmed the force had all but met Saturday's official deadline for disarming the tens of thousands of fighters who took part in the country's brutal 10-year civil war.

Young girl walking on crutches
The rebels have committed many brutal atrocities
More than 42,000 fighters have handed in guns in the past year, but those in some eastern areas stopped disarming in December.

Their decision followed bloody clashes in diamond centres, whose gems have funded the civil war.

The fighters only resumed disarming after a local deal to stop illegal diamond mining.

Mr Adeniji said hundreds of Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels had turned out in recent days in the eastern diamond centre of Tongo Field and the town of Kailahun to lay down their weapons.

Peace process

After a decade of conflict that destabilised much of West Africa, Sierra Leone is entering a decisive year in a peace process which should see elections held in May.

Foreign donors, led by the former colonial power Britain, have between them invested billions of dollars in the success of this process, and the end of disarmament is an important symbol of progress.

Demobilised RUF rebels
Rebels need to be integrated into society
However, some analysts say the peace process is being pushed too fast.

They say the international community is keen to claim success in Sierra Leone as soon as possible, thereby facilitating withdrawal from an expensive involvement severely stretched by new military and humanitarian commitments to Afghanistan.

Rebel heartland

That this final phase of disarmament is taking place in the diamond-rich east of the country is no coincidence, as that is where the civil war began.

A British soldier on street patrol in Sierra Leone
British troops have helped keep the peace
The BBC's West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle says the disarmament programme has been a qualified success.

The largest and most expensive UN peacekeeping operation in the world, plus military backing from Britain for the Sierra Leone Government army, has seen the military capacity of the rebels slashed.

But even the most optimistic UN officials admit that both sides have hidden arms caches which might be used if the elections due in a few months time do not go well.

Many Sierra Leoneans also fear that the UN and individual foreign governments, led by the British, might want to withdraw before lasting stability has been achieved.

On the other hand, the donors say Sierra Leone must avoid becoming totally dependent on external aid, or the country might never be able to stand on its own two feet.

With presidential and parliamentary elections looming in a few months time, Sierra Leoneans are holding their breath.

They are wondering whether their politicians are up to the task of conducting a free, and above all, peaceful poll.

The BBC's Mark Doyle
"Many people are keeping arms"
See also:

19 Oct 01 | Correspondent
Blood diamonds
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