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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 June 2007, 18:59 GMT 19:59 UK
Vital West African bridge opens
Mano River Bridge (from Refugees International)
The bridge was used for moving weapons during the wars
A vital bridge linking Sierra Leone with Liberia - both recovering from civil wars - has officially re-opened.

Relations between the countries have been strained as Liberia's ex-President Charles Taylor was accused of fuelling Sierra Leone's brutal conflict.

It is hoped the Mano River bridge will increase trade and unite families living on the two sides of the border.

The bridge was used to move weapons in the 1990s wars, but civilians considered it too dangerous.

Clapping

Eyewitnesses say the bridge reopened amongst cultural dancing and with a festive air.

map

People from either side, who were seen hugging each other, hope its official status will mean customs officials will be less likely to extort money from them, the BBC's Umaru Fofana in Sierra Leone says.

Loud clapping accompanied the cutting of the ribbon by senior government officials from Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The BBC's Ledgerhood Rennie in Liberia says the official opening is significant as it is hoped it will cement the peace the two countries now enjoy.

It is intended as a confidence-building measure to encourage more people to use the bridge, he says.

Monkey meat

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf won elections in 2005, ending more than a decade of unrest.

Combatants returning to Liberia from Sierra Leone over the Mano River Bridge
A border guard supervising the return of Liberian fighters

And Sierra Leoneans are going to the polls in August in the first elections since UN peacekeepers, who helped stabilise the country, left.

Correspondents say when the bridge was opened in the 1970s the volume of trade across it was huge.

The neighbours moved towards harmonising external tariffs and had wide-ranging agreements with the aim of merging their economies.

Two decades later the bridge ceased to be a trading point for goods and instead became a conduit for transporting arms and rebel fighters who destabilised both countries.

Our Liberia reporter says as well as visiting families, many Liberians are looking forward to goods that they have had to do without for several years.

In particular, monkey meat which Sierra Leonean hunters used to find did a brisk trade over the border.




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