UN: Most Sierra Leone fighters disarmed

Most fighters in Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war have turned over their weapons to peacekeepers in a disarmament program aimed at securing peace in the volatile West African nation, a senior U.N. official told the Associated Press (AP) Sunday.

The disarmament phase officially ended Saturday, but several hundred combatants were expected to continue handing over their arms on Sunday and Monday, said Maj. Gen. Martin Luther Agwai, the acting commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force, the AP reported. After the remaining fighters lay down their weapons, about 45,000 rebels and pro-government militiamen will have been disarmed, Agwai said.

The U.N.-sponsored program, crucial to ending a decade of fighting, has taken in 1.5 million rounds of ammunition and thousands of weapons, including rifles, mortars, and anti-aircraft guns since it began earlier this year.

Disarmament was initially scheduled to be completed on Nov. 30, but had been repeatedly delayed by rebels calling for the release of their jailed leader, Foday Sankoh, and sporadic clashes in eastern diamond-mining districts, the AP reported.

Rebels led by Sankoh killed, maimed, and raped thousands of civilians in the 10-year war, fought chiefly to gain control of the country’s government and diamond fields.

The rebels signed a cease-fire with the government in November.

Local media reports said some rebels were hiding their weapons across the border in neighboring Liberia, the AP reported. And many residents, deeply suspicious of the rebels, believe hordes of weapons are still buried in secret locations in Sierra Leone.

Rebel spokesman Eldred Collins said on a radio program Sunday that disarmament had transformed the rebel movement from a fighting force to a political party, the AP reported.

“Peace has returned to Sierra Leone,” he reportedly said.

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