U.N. deployment areas in Sierra Leone declared `weapon-free zones’

The U.N. mission in Sierra Leone on Tuesday declared all U.N. deployment areas “weapon-free zones,” trying to safeguard peacekeepers as they move back into rebel-held territory, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

U.N. officials are determined to avoid a repeat of last May, when rebels took about 225 U.N. peacekeepers from India hostage, Nigerian Maj. Mohammed Yerima, the U.N. mission’s military spokesman, said.

“This time around, we can defend ourselves, and repel attacks,” Yerima told reporters in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, the AP reported. He added, however, “We will not go on the offensive.”

U.N. peacekeepers on Tuesday were completing their first deployment into rebel territory since last year’s hostage-taking, the AP reported. By day’s end, U.N. spokeswoman Margarette Novicki said, about 775 Nigerian troops would be in place in the town of Lunsar, 75 miles north of Freetown.

U.N. peacekeepers started moving into Lunsar last week, after months of public demands that international forces do more to reclaim the one-third of Sierra Leone under rebel control.

Sierra Leone’s rebels have killed and maimed tens of thousands of civilians in a campaign largely bent on controlling the country’s diamond mines.

Government and rebel leaders signed a peace accord in 1999, but the nine-year civil war reignited with May’s hostage-taking.

Novicki said the latest deployment had been “incident-free.”

U.N. officials also pressed in talks with rebel leaders for rebels to lay down their arms, Yerima said.