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UN Reopens Land Route to Return Sierra Leone Refugees

A group of Sierra Leonean refugees is traveling home from Liberia by road Tuesday. It is the first such trip in nearly two years. The United Nations refugee agency says the route is now safe, following the end of the Liberian civil war and the deployment of peacekeeping troops in the region.

This first convoy has only 67 refugees, but U.N. officials hope it will be the beginning of a much larger repatriation.

The U.N. refugee agency representative in Liberia, Moses Okello, said assistance programs to aid Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia will end in June, and the refugees should return home to help bring stability to the region. "That is our major objective, that people be able to go back to their homes, resume their living and become productive, and rebuild their countries and continue to support the development of the entire region," he said.

The brutal decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone led to the displacement of nearly half the population. Almost 14,000 Sierra Leonean refugees are still in Liberia, nearly five years after a peace accord was signed to end the Sierra Leone war. More than 19,000 have already returned home from Liberia. But the flow slowed over the last two years, because Liberia's civil war made the road unsafe, and many of the refugees did not want to travel by ship.

Now, the United Nations Mission in Liberia has deployed peacekeepers along the route known as Bo Waterside, and officials say it is now safe for refugee convoys.

The chief of U.N. peacekeepers, General Daniel Opande, said the route was controlled by members of the rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, known as LURD. But the general said his peacekeepers now control the area. "I was there myself last week at Bo Waterside, and I drove all along the route, from Monrovia to Bo Waterside, and all their checkpoints, which were manned previously by LURD combatants, have been dismantled, and the area is now under our control," he said.

The U.N. refugee official, Mr. Okello, expects the refugees to respond positively to the overland repatriation program, and he says the refugee agency's staff in Sierra Leone will help the refugees readjust.