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Last UN Troops Leave Impoverished Sierra Leone

The last contingent of what was once the world's largest peacekeeping operation has left Sierra Leone. Security has returned in the former West African British colony, but economic prospects remain bleak.

About 300 Pakistani soldiers boarded a flight to Islamabad, marking the final troop withdrawal before the five-year peacekeeping mission's closure at the end of the month.

Peace has returned to Sierra Leone, after a brutal civil war from 1991 to 2001, in which many child soldiers were used, diamonds were traded for weapons, and victims had their limbs chopped off.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission got off to a rocky start, according to its current head of mission, Tanzanian Daudi Mwakawago.

"Initially, it was a very chaotic experience," he said. "Some of our peacekeepers were ruffled by rebels. They were abducted and the British had to come and rescue them to help stabilize the situation. Also some British troops were abducted."

At its height, the peacekeeping mission had more than 17,000 soldiers. It disarmed more than 70,000 fighters, and gave re-integration training to 50,000 of these.

The mission also trained more than 9,000 new police officers, and deployed them throughout Sierra Leone.

It also helped mediate a peace accord, as well as organized elections in 2002 and 2004.

But Mr. Mwakawago regrets a U.N. peacekeeping mission does not have an economic component.

"You need actually to have an economic package to ensure that the government while the peacekeepers go, the people are not restive, because of economic problems," he said. "You have massive youth unemployment, you have terrible abject poverty in the country, over 70 percent, so that to me, [reduces] my optimism. Power, water supply, road infrastructure, they need to be addressed."

Life expectancy in Sierra Leone is a dismal 37 years old.

A British-led team is staying until 2010 to help train a new army, while several hundred Nigerian peacekeepers will be stationed at the special court for war crimes in Sierra Leone. The court is awaiting the extradition from Nigeria of its main accused war criminal, former Liberian President and alleged rebel sponsor Charles Taylor.