Dozens of Sierra Leonean rebels and pro-government militia turned up Monday in the northern town of Kabala to join a nationwide disarmament bid that has seen 16,000 fighters lay down their weapons.
A ceremony marking the start of disarmament in the area around Kabala was attended by the United Nations Special Representative in Sierra Leone, Oluyemi Adeniji and the acting force commander of the UN peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, Major-general Martin Luther Agwei.
Government officials, along with leaders from the state-backed Kamajor militia and Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels also participated.
Kabala sits in the heart of the Koinadugu district, which was devastated during Sierra Leone's brutal 10-year war.
In recent years the town had been a stronghold of RUF rebels and their former allies from an ousted junta -- who had waged sporadic guerrilla warfare and decimated homes and crops.
But peace efforts have taken hold and fighters are laying down their weapons under the watchful eye of UN peacekeepers who have fanned out across the mineral-rich west African nation.
The United Nations, which has authorized a force of 17,500 peacekeepers for the tiny country, estimates that at least 45,000 fighters need to be disarmed. The figure is a conservative estimate, officials admit.
Officials from the UNAMSIL peackeeping mission say the total number of combatants who have given up their weapons so far is 16,027 -- among them 6,414 rebels, 9,142 Kamajors, 201 ex soldiers, 254 former junta members and 16 others.
A total of 2,426 child combatants have also been disarmed, according to UNAMSIL military spokesman Major Mohamed Yerima.
In the eastern Kono district where rebels have used diamonds to finance their bloody campaign, 5,634 rebels have turned in arms, the spokesman said, adding that disarmament officially ended in the area last week.
RUF rebels, who still hold some 60 percent of the country, unleashed an insurgency in 1991, proceeding to kill, savagely mutilate, rape and displace tens of thousands of people.
In Koinadugu -- a rebel flashpoint during the war -- UNAMSIL officials expect 1,450 rebels and 1,280 Kamajor fighters to disarm by the end of August.
"Koinadugu is on line and all preparations have been made to ensure a smooth process", the head of the National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (NCDDR), Francis Kaikai told UNAMSIL radio Monday.
But resources for the fighters who turn themselves in are limited.
Kaikai said only one camp has been established at an abandoned agricultural site near an army headquarters.
Rebel spokesman Gibril Massaquoi told UNAMSIL radio that disarmament might take longer than envisaged, and that transport would be needed for rebels dispersed throughout the north.
"I am not sure whether disarmament of our men will be completed in two weeks as we had agreed because our men are well over the place as close to the border with Guinea. We would need transport to bring them in," Massaquoi said -- FREETOWN, (AFP)
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