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Liberian War May Prompt UN to Keep Peacekeepers in Sierra Leone - 2002-09-10

U.N. officials say the ongoing civil war in Liberia may prompt the United Nations to keep a massive force of peacekeepers in neighboring Sierra Leone.

With 17,000 troops on the ground, the U.N. Mission in Sierra Leone, UNAMSIL, remains the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world.

Sierra Leone's rebel war, known for brutality that included the amputation of limbs and the use of child soldiers, was declared over in January.

Peaceful elections were held in May, and British troops, whose deployment three years ago helped stop the fighting, started pulling out earlier this year.

UNAMSIL's mandate, which has been renewed every six months, is due to expire at the end of this month, but U.N. officials say the mission will likely be extended.

The escalating civil war in neighboring Liberia, says UNAMSIL spokeswoman Margaret Novicki, is one big reason.

"There continues to be fighting on the Liberian side of the border, in fact quite close in the past few weeks, to the Sierra Leone border in the northwestern part of Liberia. Of course, this is a cause of concern for us in Sierra Leone because we have been faced with some refugee inflows as a result of the fighting in Liberia, as well as some cross-border incursions where different armed groups have come across into Sierra Leone villages to raid and actually abduct villagers."

It was along Sierra Leone's border with Liberia that the Sierra Leonean conflict began 10 years ago. Liberia remains under U.N. sanctions that were imposed after the United Nations accused the Liberian government of continuing to support Sierra Leonean rebels.

U.N. officials say the Sierra Leonean police and armed forces are still in the process of being trained and deployed to parts of the country that have been off limits for years. Officials say some 20,000 former combatants have yet to be trained for jobs and reintegrated into civil society.

Concerns about the sustainability of peace in the region will be laid out in a report that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan will present to the Security Council later this month, when it formally decides whether U.N. peacekeepers should remain in Sierra Leone.