U.N. deploy in Sierra Leone mining town

Armed U.N. peacekeepers were on patrol Saturday in a rebel-held mining town in Sierra Leone, deploying without interference in the key diamond-rich region, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

About 250 Zambian U.N. troops rolled into the eastern town of Tongo late Friday, September 14, formally welcomed by rebel Revolutionary United Front leaders, the AP reported. “We are at home with them,” a local rebel commander, identified only as Col. Banya, told U.N. mission commander Gen. Daniel Opande of Kenya. A total of 700 to 800 of the Zambian peacekeepers are to move into Tongo in coming days.

Sierra Leone’s rebels fought their 10-year war largely to win control of the West African nation’s diamond fields, as well as to put their leader, Foday Sankoh, into the presidency.

With that aim, rebels killed, enslaved, raped and burned tens of thousands of civilians, making mutilation-hacking off of limbs with machetes-their signature act of brutality.

Sankoh was captured in May 2000, and is now awaiting an expected war crimes trial. Under military pressure from the forces of the United Nations, Britain, and neighboring Guinea, rebels signed a cease-fire with the government in November.

About 18,000 combatants have now disarmed, including an estimated half of the rebel force. More than 16,000 U.N. troops have deployed in the U.N.’s largest such mission worldwide.

Disarmament in the Tongo fields and in the east’s Kailahum district, on the Liberian border, is supposed to take place in November, the AP reported. With Liberia’s support, Sankoh launched his insurrection from that district’s town of Bomane in 1991.

The United Nations banned diamond exports from Liberia earlier this year, aiming to cut off Liberian President Charles Taylor’s support for Sierra Leone’s rebels.