Political leaders in Sierra Leone are welcoming the U.N. Security Council's decision Thursday to keep peacekeepers in the country for another six months. They say the peacekeepers' presence will be essential to ensuring that presidential elections in May - the first since the 10-year civil war ended - are carried out smoothly.
Even before the war, Sierra Leone had a history of violence surrounding presidential elections. Many in the country fear that with wounds of a brutal 10-year conflict still fresh, violence could again erupt if a security apparatus is not fully in place. With 17,500 peacekeepers, the U.N. Special Mission in Sierra Leone is the largest U.N. peacekeeping operation in the world. The U.N. mandate was due to expire on Saturday.
A U.N. sponsored disarmament program was completed in January, marking the formal end of the war. Since then, the government has been working to establish its full presence in areas of the country that were previously in the control of rebels. Sierra Leone's police forces, which were run out of most the territory during the war, are still in the process of training and re-deploying.
Like many people in the capital, Freetown, longtime political activist Zainab Bangura says she believes the U.N. peacekeepers' massive presence will give people a sense of security when they go to the polls on May 14. Mrs. Bangura tells VOA she believes it is the elections that will be the true test of whether sustainable peace has come to Sierra Leone.
"I think there has to be adequate evidence that nobody is going to fight. I think that can only take place months after the elections. Elections in Sierra Leone are very regional and they normally polarize the country. I think this election, more than any other election, has divided the country more than I have ever seen. You have the old people's party, the party that has ruled this country for 23 years is coming back in a very strong force. And you have the SLPP ruling party very determined to stay in power. And you have the RUF who feels that they have so much authority and power within the last five or six years," she says.
Incumbent President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah is widely favored to win the poll.
The government this week formally recognized to the former rebels' Revolutionary United Front Party as a fully registered political party.
RUF members say they consider their jailed leader, Foday Sankoh, their candidate in the May election. Mr. Sankoh, however, is expected to remain in jail for the foreseeable future. The country's National Election Commission chairman on Thursday said the rebel leader - who is on trial for murder - does not appear on the list of those who intend to run. The commission said Mr. Sankoh is ineligible to take part in the election because he did not register to vote. Parties have until Tuesday to formally designate their candidates.
The resurgence of unrest in neighboring Liberia in recent months has raised concerns that fighting may spill into areas of Sierra Leone along the Liberian border, where the war first began 10 years ago.
The government of Liberian President Charles Taylor remains under U.N. sanctions that were imposed over its support of the war in Sierra Leone. U.N. officials say the sanctions have not been lifted because Mr. Taylor's government has yet to convince the international community that he is no longer supporting rebel activities in the region.
Mr. Taylor has protested the continuation of the sanctions, saying he believes the fact that Sierra Leone is no longer at war should serve as enough evidence that Liberia has stopped supporting the rebels.