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Wednesday, 13 February, 2002, 16:31 GMT
Sierra Leone refugees go home
Sierra Leonean refugees
Sierra Leone's war left millions homeless
The first batch of Sierra Leonean refugees has returned home from Liberia under a United Nations voluntary repatriation programme which started on Wednesday.

Former Sierra Leonean rebels
Rebels have handed in their weapons

About 300 refugees crossed the border, one month after Sierra Leone declared an end to its brutal 10-year civil war.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said groups of 300 to 400 refugees would be repatriated from now on alternate days.

There are about 70,000 Sierra Leonean refugees still left in Liberia, where fighting between the government and rebels has recently escalated near the capital Monrovia.

The BBC's Mark Doyle says that many Sierra Leoneans now feel insecure in Liberia and are anxious to leave.

Trepidation

The refugees were due to leave camps in Sinje, about 35km (20 miles) from Monrovia, the UN said in a statement.

Thousands of Sierra Leoneans, as well as some Liberians, have already fled across the border because of the surge in fighting the in Liberian town of Klay.

Refugees fleeing from  fighting in Klay
Liberia now has its own refugee crisis
Nearly 6,200 refugees have signed up for the official repatriation.

About 120,000 have already returned from Liberia, and several hundred return weekly from Guinea.

Our correspondent says there was some trepidation among the Sierra Leoneans as to what the would find when they got home.

But peace has now been restored to Sierra Leone as a result of the efforts of the United Nations and the British, who have been helping reform the Sierra Leonean army.

Last month, 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 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.

Liberia crisis

In Liberia, UNHCR said it would begin settling Liberian refugees at the Jimmi Bagbo camp, about 350 kilometres (210 miles) inside Sierra Leone.

The UN World Food Programme estimates that 10,000 refugees have so far fled the fighting to Monrovia and surrounding areas.

Liberian President Charles Taylor has declared a state of emergency, and security forces have started rounding up suspected rebel agents in the capital.

See also:

18 Jan 02 | Africa
Sierra Leone's 'flames of peace'
19 Jan 02 | Africa
Sierra Leone: Memories of war
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