U.N. officials say the disarmament process remains on track in Sierra Leone. This week, combatants began handing over their weapons in two districts, Bo and Bombali, where the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) are headquartered.
The disarmament in Bombali district was off to a slow start, with only three former fighters showing up to hand over weapons. And in the town of Makeni, the headquarters of the RUF, rebels say they have postponed laying down arms for the time being.
RUF spokesman Gibril Massaquoi tells VOA the delay has to do with the place where U.N. peacekeepers had asked them to deposit their weapons: a school. Mr. Massaquoi says having former RUF combatants be seen at a school would damage the group's image as it prepares to launch itself as a political party in Sierra Leone. "We are not going to demobilize our combatants in any of the school compounds," Mr. Massaquoi said. "Initially, it has been alleged that we had been vandalizing schools. So, we cannot be seen as people going into school compounds to demobilize our combatants."
The RUF is hoping to shed the image it acquired during the country's 10-year civil war, when its rebels gained a gruesome reputation for, among other things, hacking off the limbs of small children.
Rebel leaders have agreed to begin disarmament at another site in Makeni, once that site has been prepared.
U.N. officials say 64 ex-combatants gave up their weapons in Bo district on Tuesday.
The dispute in Makeni and other setbacks have caused a delay in the overall disarmament schedule. U.N. officials earlier said they expected disarmament to be completed sometime in November. The target date is now the end of the year.
Margaret Novicki, spokeswoman for the U.N. Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) says overall, the effort remains on track. "We expect that by the end of the year the disarmament of the entire country should be completed," Ms. Novicki said. "What we're doing is going two districts at a time. We anticipate about a month for each district to disarm. We have, after Bombali and Bo are completed, four more districts to complete."
Since the U.N.-sponsored disarmament program began in May, thousands of rebels and as well as fighters in the pro-government militias have turned in their weapons.