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Refugee Official Calls for West African Disarmament 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is calling for a regional agreement to limit small arms in West Africa to prevent new flareups of fighting. The U.N. refugee chief is in Ivory Coast on the last stop of a four-nation tour to assess repatriation programs for people who fled recently ended conflicts in the region.

Ending a week long West African tour in Ivory Coast, U.N. refugee chief Ruud Lubbers made a plea to countries to bring a sustainable peace to the region by limiting small arms. Mr. Lubbers is concerned that small arms from recent civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone could fuel another crisis in Ivory Coast, where the United Nations is monitoring a cease-fire.

"You know, here in Cote d'Ivoire, there's a risky situation with a cease-fire, so that, easily, people can be attracted to become young armed elements again," he noted. "So, I make a plea that there is a political agreement between the three countries, but including Cote d'Ivoire, to go for disarmament. The disarmament not only of the irregular forces, I mean, I call irregular everybody who is not a member of a regular army or police."

Mr. Lubbers praised the success of disarmament efforts in Sierra Leone after its decade-long civil war, which ended in 2002.

The high commissioner told VOA he was delighted to be able to accompany a convoy of Liberian refugees returning home from Sierra Leone. About 300,000 Liberians are expected to return home, after nearly 15 years of fighting in their country.

"I am a high commissioner for refugees, but, when I can make a choice, I prefer that they call me the 'high commissioner for returnees,' because this is always the positive moment," he said. "They are really eager to go home. These, of course are motivated people, because the processes are voluntary. You see in their eyes, finally it's there. They're looking in there for years, many of them, and, finally, they go home. So, this is a moment of joy."

Mr. Lubbers stressed that it was important to integrate returning refugees into society. He emphasized the importance of community and education, particularly of women, in creating peaceful environments.