Global Policy Forum

Sierra Leone Disarmament Reaches

July 3, 2001

Rebels and pro-government militia fighters have begun disarming in Sierra Leone's eastern Kono diamond-mining region, whose stones have helped fuel a decade of war, U.N. officials said.

About 30 members of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and 10 fighters from the Civil Defence Forces militia handed in rifles and hand grenades late on Monday under a peace plan for the West African country, the officials said. More than 6,000 fighters including 2,000 rebels have already disarmed in Sierra Leone but rebels in Kono had not joined in.

''I will describe the disarmament in the diamond rich land of Kono as very important because some few weeks ago we thought it would not be possible as there were reported cases of tension,'' said Behrooz Sadry, the deputy head of the U.N. mission. He expected some 1,500 fighters to disarm in the region -- the most sensitive in Sierra Leone because of its diamond mines and because it has long been a rebel stronghold.

The rebels' use of diamonds to fund their struggle has encouraged a world campaign against so-called ''blood diamonds.'' The export of RUF diamonds is banned and neighbouring Liberia is under U.N. sanctions for trading Sierra Leonean gems for guns.

Fighters began handing in weapons under an agreement in May between the rebels and government to begin disarmament as a follow-up to a November ceasefire that largely ended fighting. More than 2,000 of those who have disarmed are rebels. Most of the rest are from an array of local tribal militias grouped within the pro-government Civil Defence Forces.

The United Nations has deployed its biggest current peacekeeping operation in Sierra Leone to try to end the particularly savage war which has links to conflicts in neighbouring Guinea and Liberia. For the United Nations, the situation looks far more optimistic than a year ago, when the force was trying to recover after the rebels defied a 1999 peace agreement and briefly took hundreds of peacekeepers hostage.

The apparent rebel change of heart follows regular cross-border attacks by Guinean-backed forces, while Britain, the former colonial power, has been trying to shape the government's ramshackle army into an effective fighting force. ''We have given our assurance to our people in Sierra Leone that nothing will stop us from disarmament as long the government of Sierra Leone follows the (peace) the letter,'' said RUF commander Brigadier Maris Kallon.

If disarmament goes according to plan then elections could be held as early as the end of this year. President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's original mandate has already expired. Elections in 1996 were held without rebel approval and some RUF units hacked hands off voters to punish them for voting.

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