U.N. peacekeepers went to the Sierra Leonean rebel headquarters town of Makeni on Tuesday in the boldest move to restore their presence across the West African country since retreating in disarray last year, Reuters reported.
It was the first time they had gone to the northern town since a peace deal collapsed in May 2000 and rebels attacked U.N. and government positions, briefly taking hundreds of peacekeepers hostage.
Major-General Martin Agwai, deputy military commander for the U.N. mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), told reporters in the capital Freetown that Nigerian troops began moving into Makeni early in the day and would be deployed there by evening, Reuters reported.
Peacekeepers were also going to Magburaka, Reuters reported, 15 miles southeast of Makeni, and Mano Junction, on a strategic highway in the diamond-rich east, whose gems are blamed for financing the 10-year war.
“As we expand our deployment, we also make sure that we have adequate men on the ground…in case of any possible threat,” Agwai reportedly said.
“We are pleased that UNAMSIL is moving ahead now,” Information Minister Julius Spencer told Reuters, adding that police and civil servants would be sent into the areas concerned once UNAMSIL declared them safe.
But Spencer said he thought some of the RUF hierarchy had been moved from Makeni to the eastern diamond center of Kono, another key rebel base.
Peacekeepers in both Makeni and Magburaka were forced to retreat after rebel attacks last year.
The U.N. peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone is its largest anywhere, but has faced repeated setbacks-not just the hostage crisis but a falling-out between contingents that led Indian troops to withdraw.
Last month UNAMSIL began trying to redeploy its forces across the West African state after an improvement in relations with the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which followed a new cease-fire in November 2000.
Further deployment was also prevented by a lack of troops after the withdrawal of India-the largest contingent-and Jordan.
After appeals for more soldiers by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the arrival of fresh contingents from countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh has allowed UNAMSIL to resume deployment.
Agwai dismissed as unfounded reports that troops going to Magburaka had been hindered by the RUF, adding that they were taking steps to avoid any such trouble, Reuters reported.