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West African Cabinet Ministers Meet in Sierra Leone - 2001-08-23

The apparent return of peace to Sierra Leone is raising hopes that a settlement may be coming in the complicated dispute that has been festering among Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Cabinet ministers of the three nations, which make up the Mano River Union, have been meeting in Sierra Leone since Wednesday. The gathering is seen as a sign that overall tensions may be easing in the region.

The meeting convened in the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown. Ministers of Defense, Justice, and Interior Ministers of the three countries held talks on security issues in the region.

The aim of the gathering is to resolve differences that remain among the three countries as a result of a continuing border conflict. Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have in the past accused each other of supporting rebels and sponsoring cross-border attacks.

About 16,000 combatants have disarmed in Sierra Leone since May, an indication that the country's 10-year civil war appears to be coming to an end. The end of the war in Sierra Leone is giving governments in the region hope that an end to the conflict among the three nations may soon be possible.

Liberian Foreign Minister Monie Captan, whose nation is under U.N. sanctions over its support of Sierra Leonean rebels, says ministers do not expect to resolve all of their countries' differences at this meeting. But he said the gathering is a step in the right direction. "The fact that we're here, I think, is symbolic of the intentions and the good will on all sides to move forward," he said.

Liberia in recent days said fighting had intensified between rebels and Liberian troops in the country's northern Lofa county. Mr. Captan said the issue of increasing hostilities in his country was not on the table for discussion at the Freetown meeting.

Officials last week in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, begin laying the groundwork for a possible summit among leaders of the three countries.

Fighting in Liberia and Sierra Leone over the years has forced hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees into Guinean territory. The refugee situation was aggravated last year when rebel attacks intensified in southern Guinea where thousands had taken refuge.

With peace returning to Sierra Leone, many refugees have started going back to their homes.