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Sierra Leone Combatants Continue to Turn in Weapons After Deadline - 2002-01-06

United Nations and government officials in Sierra Leone say a number of former rebels and pro-government militias continue to lay down their weapons following Saturday's deadline for disarmament. The disarmament program, which began in May, marks the end of Sierra Leone's brutal 10-year civil war.

UN and Sierra Leonean officials say the UN sponsored program, during the course of eight months, brought more than 40,000 rebels and pro-government militia members to surrender their weapons. The disarmament signaled the end of a conflict that spanned one decade and claimed more than 200,000 lives.

The program was carried out district by district, under terms of a UN-sponsored peace agreement. The disarmament deadline had been set for November, but occasional skirmishes among fighters hesitant to disarm caused delays.

The latest deadline was Saturday, and UN officials say only a small number of combatants had not yet handed over their weapons. More continued to disarm on Sunday.

Dr. Francis KaiKai, who heads Sierra Leone's National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration, told VOA he is not surprised by the delay in the last two districts of Kenema and Kailahun. "We have allocated a month to each district," he said. "What we have discovered during the process [is] that there is always some dilly-dallying in the early part of the month, and later in the month they all want to come up and disarm. So, Kenema and Kailahun in the east have not been the exception."

With the program now officially over, Dr. KaiKai said a new program will kick in to reach former combatants who have, for whatever reason, held out. "Those so-called 'stragglers' and other individuals who have not laid down their arms will now be encouraged to actually disarm [under] that program," he said. "Following that program, I think it will be more of a law and order issue now nothing to do with disarmament itself."

Sierra Leonean officials say they will treat those who do not surrender their weapons as criminal elements who will be sought and arrested by police.

A team of visiting UN officials is to begin work Monday to set up a special court that will try combatants accused of committing war crimes during the 10-year conflict.

The war centered largely on gaining control of Sierra Leone's rich diamond mines. Rebels with the Revolutionary United Front became known for launching a campaign of terror that included amputating the limbs of civilians.

The conflict started coming to an end last year following the arrival of British troops and the deployment 17,000 UN peacekeepers one of the largest UN operations in the world.