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Sierra Leone Police Directed to Step Up Efforts for Presidential Runoff

Sierra Leone police, charged with maintaining order and preventing violence in the nation's presidential runoff Saturday, say they will act more robustly and with less partisan sway following a directive by President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. Kari Barber attended a police gathering in Freetown and reports for VOA how police are filling the role played by U.N. troops in the previous election.

Thousands of uniformed officers stood at attention on a muddy playing field in Freetown.

This is the first time since the end of the nation's brutal civil war that national police are responsible for the security of a presidential election.

Assistant Police Inspector General Richard Moigbe says police across the nation met Tuesday to explain what needs to be done to meet President Kabbah's demands that police step up their efforts.

"We have called them to talk to them for them to be more professional, to be more robust and more firm and to have self confidence in the performance in their duty," he said. "Also to remind them for the rest of the electoral process they have to be neutral, impartial, non-partisan and professional."

Freetown policeman Samba Gbekie says it was not easy to remain neutral when he was caught in the middle of violent confrontations between supporters of All People's Congress candidate Ernest Koroma and those of Vice President and Sierra Leone People's Party candidate Solomon Berewa on Saturday. At least a dozen people were injured in the clashes in which party followers used clubs and machetes to attack.

"Our conduct should portray neutrality," said Gbekie. "So, do you throw tear gas at the SLPP, they will say 'You are against us,' or the APC. Later on I realized that I have to make a decision, I am dealing with Sierra Leoneans, putting away political interests whether they are APC or SLPP."

Gbekie says in the end the police used the tear gas to disperse everybody, regardless of party affiliation.

President Kabbah released the directive to police following a rise in tensions and violence leading up to the second round of voting. He also signed a deal with APC's Koroma and SLPP's Berewa to hold a joint peace rally on Thursday, the last day of campaigning. Police had warned that separate rallies in the capital could provoke violence.

APC's Koroma led Vice President Berewa 44 pecent to 38 percent in the first round on August 11, making a runoff necessary as neither was near the 55 percent needed to win the first round outright.