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Friday, 18 January, 2002, 15:50 GMT
Sierra Leone's 'flames of peace'
Sierra Leone soldiers in Freetown
It is difficult for some to believe the war is really over
The president of Sierra Leone has declared an end to one of Africa's most brutal wars.

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was joined by rebel leaders and international guests at a peace ceremony in an army camp in the capital Freetown.


The war done done

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah
The celebrations included a symbolic bonfire of some of the tens of thousands of weapons, gathered over the past year from both government troops and rebels.

The horrific conflict, which killed up to 50,000 people, was characterised by widespread atrocities against civilians, including mass rape and mutilation.

The war also left millions of people homeless, spreading throughout West Africa before UN-initiated peace talks ended the conflict.

Bonfire celebration

The BBC's Mark Doyle says that Sierra Leoneans, who have had little to celebrate in more than a decade of war, are making the most of this special day.

Victim of amputation
The war was characterised by unspeakable atrocities
"The war done done," President Kabbah said at the peace ceremony.

"Today we are happy that those flames of war have been extinguished and that now we are about to watch the flames of peace," he said, shortly before the huge pile of about 3,000 guns was set on fire.

Under the UN-brokered peace programme, some 47,000 rebels and government militiamen have turned in their weapons over the past year.

UN spokeswoman Margaret Novicki told the AFP news agency that a total of 14,500 weapons had been collected since January of last year, along with 1.3 million pieces of ammunition.

Rebel presence

The interim leader of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), Issa Sesay, was also in Freetown for the ceremonies - his first visit to the capital in four years.

Child soldiers in Sierra Leone
Many children were pressed into military service
"We have reached an historic turning point in Sierra Leone," Mr Sesay said in his speech.

"Violence and destruction have ended and no weapon is hidden to be used again," he added.

Our correspondent says his presence proves that there is confidence all around in the peace process, which will ultimately lead to elections in May.

The future of former rebel leader Foday Sankoh, who is still in prison along with dozens of other rebels, remains a contentious issue.

He is widely expected to face a war crimes tribunal formally set up on Wednesday by United Nations officials and Sierra Leone's government.

But reports say the RUF is still expected to choose Mr Sankoh as its presidential candidate.

A new chapter

Whatever problems the future may hold, Friday was still a day for celebration and parties.

Sierra Leone has been at war for so long that it is difficult for those who lived through the conflict to really believe it is all over.

Sierra Leoneans may now put the awful memories behind them and try to enter a new and more peaceful chapter in their history.

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah
President Kabbah won the war with British help

The war began as a revolt against corruption, mixed up with a criminal quest for illegally-mined diamonds.

The conflict quickly degenerated into a bloodbath, with thousands tortured and killed and young children forced into brutal military service.

The UN intervened in the late 1990s with what was then the world's largest peacekeeping force. However, the ill-equipped force hit a crisis when hundreds of peacekeepers were kidnapped by the rebels.

Then the former colonial power, Britain, entered the fray, arming and training the army of the elected Sierra Leone government.

Between them and a newly toughened UN force, the Sierra Leonean government and rebels were convinced that peace was possible.

Our correspondent says several potential pitfalls in the peace process remain, including the continued demand from the rebels for the release of Mr Sankoh.

However, Friday's celebrations of peace may put those issues to one side - for now.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Mark Doyle
"It was remarkable to see the spirit of reconciliation"
Francis Kaikai, Demobilisation organiser
"This is the end of the war"
See also:

18 Jan 02 | Africa
The President's speech
17 Jan 02 | Africa
Bringing justice to Sierra Leone
16 Jan 02 | Africa
Leone war crimes tribunal set up
13 Jan 02 | Africa
Last Sierra Leone rebels disarm
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