U.N. patrols entered a rebel-held diamond-mining town for the first time in Sierra Leone’s war, patrolling the rebel stronghold without resistance, the U.N. force commander announced Monday.
The patrol asserted U.N. peacekeepers’ right of access to one of the rebels’ key prizes in the 10-year-old conflict – the Tongofield diamond field, one of the West African nation’s richest, the Associated Press (AP) reported.
U.N. peacekeepers carried out the patrol Saturday but revealed it only Monday, the AP reported.
Force commander Lt. Gen. Daniel Opande told the AP that 100 peacekeepers made “a strong and long-range patrol” to the eastern diamond town.
U.N. troops were “well-received” by fighters of the Revolutionary United Front and local people, Opande said.
It was the most assertive move yet of weeks back on the move for U.N. peacekeepers in Sierra Leone, deploying cautiously in the one-third to one-half of the country under control of the brutal rebel force.
Rebels have met the new deployments into their territory peacefully-in sharp contrast to last May, when rebels broke off a peace accord and took 500 advancing U.N. peacekeepers hostage.
Peacekeepers now are deploying town by town, moving slowly and in force.
Saturday’s patrol met with rebel leaders and local people, returning the same day, Opande told AP.
“We went there to see for ourselves where we are going to deploy and how many men we would need,” the U.N. commander told AP. “You will realize that Rome was not built in a day,” he said. “This is in preparation for our deployment in those areas.
The same day, U.N. patrols also traveled for the first time to the rebels’ headquarters in the east, Kailahun; the northern town of Kambia; “and beyond,” Opande said. He didn’t elaborate, the AP reported.
Another key diamond-mining town in the eastern region, Kono, has yet to be visited.
Sierra Leone’s rebels have killed and maimed tens of thousands in a campaign of terror largely bent on winning and holding diamond mines. Rebels’ trademark in the war has been mutilation-hacking off the hands, feet or lips of countless civilians.
The U.N. Security Council voted this month to boost the peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone from 12,000 to 17,500. The deployment already is the world’s largest.
A newly appointed political chief for the rebels subsequently announced that rebel commanders wanted to renew peace efforts. Rebels have frequently made such overtures before, only to resume attacks.
Movement founder Foday Sankoh, who launched the insurrection from Liberia in 1991, was arrested with more than 100 other rebel leaders after rebels reignited the war in May.
He’s now being held at an undisclosed location, with the government saying it hopes to put him before an international court on charges of crimes against humanity.