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POLITICS-SIERRA LEONE: UN Approves Peacekeeping Mission

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 22 1999 (IPS) - The UN Security Council unanimously approved Friday the creation of a new peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone, which is intended to deploy some 6,000 soldiers to the West African nation within one month.

The Council’s approval of the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), which will assist in demobilising government and rebel troops and monitor a cease-fire in effect since July, marked the first major UN commitment to peacekeeping in Africa since UN troops withdrew from Rwanda and Somalia four years ago.

The Council resolution effectively established UNAMSIL – for an initial period of six months – to cooperate with the West African peacekeeping force, called ECOMOG.

It was authorised to use force under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, in order to protect civilians from violence.

Ibrahim Kamara, Sierra Leone’s UN ambassador, called the UN force an “insurance policy” against the prospect of further violence. Friday’s vote, demonstrated that nations would not “turn a blind eye if and when civilians are under the threat of physical violence,” he added.

ECOMOG, the military force of the Economic Community of West African States, has reduced the level of its troops in Sierra Leone in recent months. Nigeria, the dominant force in ECOMOG, elected a civilian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, who was committed to reducing Nigeria’s military presence in the region.

As a result, several thousand of the 12,000 ECOMOG troops who were deployed in Sierra Leone in August already had returned to Nigeria or are scheduled to depart.

UNAMSIL would help ensure that the Nigerians’ departure does not hurt Sierra Leone’s fledgling peace process, and that some ECOMOG troops stay on in the country, diplomats said.

The vote to create UNAMSIL demonstrated that the Security Council was “ready and willing to stand with (the Sierra Leoneans) as they rebuild their shattered country and their shattered lives,” said US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

Holbrooke noted that, earlier this week, there was another skirmish between rebel factions, a sign that the peace process remains fragile. “The momentum of the peace process could easily be lost without prompt, robust action by the international community,” he warned.

Such concerns prompted the United States to back the Sierra Leone force, despite some misgivings by the Pentagon against approving such a large force in an African country where some violence has sputtered on even after the cease-fire.

Yet US officials, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, tried to raise the visibility of Sierra Leone’s problems in order to bolster US support for the UN mission.

This week, in a visit to Sierra Leone, Albright urged the government and rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to abide by the Jul. 7 peace agreement signed in Lome, Togo.

Albright met RUF leader Foday Sankoh, who is to participate in a power-sharing agreement as part of the July accord, at a closed meeting and refused to appear with him in public as she did with President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.

Sankoh and his rebel group were accused of orchestrating mass killings and the mutilation of thousands of Sierra Leoneans during the country’s brutal nine-year civil war.

The Lome accord has been criticised by human rights groups for offering amnesty to the RUF and other rebel factions.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose organisation signed on to the peace agreement, attached a proviso to the UN acceptance of the pact: that the world body would not accept the amnesty provisions in the case of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

To show its concern about human rights, the Security Council urged in its resolution that the Sierra Leonean parties should set up commissions for reconciliation and human rights as soon as possible.

Nevertheless, most diplomats here are also hoping that the amnesty and power-sharing deals spell an end to the civil war, in which roughly half a million people were forced to flee the country and thousands others were killed or maimed.

“We remain committed to the pursuit of accountability for serious violations of international humanitarian law, wherever they occur,” Holbrooke said. “At the same time, we recognise the need to allow the peace agreement to bear fruit.”

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