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UN Setting Up War Crimes Court in Sierra Leone - 2002-01-07

A team of U.N. experts is setting up a special court in Sierra Leone to try combatants accused of committing crimes during the country's brutal 10-year civil war.

The team of 20 experts arrived Sunday in Freetown, and is to hold consultations with the government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.

The special war crimes court is part of the next phase of Sierra Leone's peace process, which has included the disarmament of more than 46,000 combatants during the past eight months.

Sierra Leonean officials say except for a few hundred fighters all the combatants handed in their weapons by the disarmament deadline on Saturday.

Patrick Coker, a spokesman for the U.N. Mission in Sierra Leone, says members of the U.N. team will work to lay the groundwork for the special court. "They will identify logistics requirements for the purpose of the special court," he said. "Particularly, they will identify facilities like the court premises [and] the prison premises."

The special court will be set up under terms of a 1999 peace accord signed in Lome, Togo, by the Sierra Leonean government and rebels with the Revolutionary United Front. Implementation of the accord became possible in recent months, following the deployment of British troops and about 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers.

Leaders of the rebel group have repeatedly complained about the establishment of a special court, saying they fear that testimony heard during the tribunal will reopen old wounds and thus hamper the peace process. During the course of the war, the RUF launched a campaign of terror in which rebel fighters hacked off the limbs of civilians, including small children.

The war - fought over control of the country's rich diamond fields - killed more than 200,000 people and left the country with what the United Nations says are the world's worst living conditions in terms of income, life expectancy, health care, and education.

While some former insurgents oppose a special court, others favor it, saying it will help Sierra Leoneans draw a separation between rebels who committed atrocities against civilians and those who did not.

In a speech at a religious service on Sunday, President Kabbah urged all Sierra Leoneans to work for reconciliation. The president also announced that a curfew the country has been living under for the past few years will be formally lifted this month.

Although funding for the court has not been fully secured, the United Nations says it will likely help make up for any shortfall. Nations including the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands have already pledged contributions.