U.N. officials, though pleased with the conduct of elections in Sierra Leone, say the African nation remains vulnerable and will require the continued presence of U.N. peacekeepers. The United Nations currently has over 17,000 troops in the country.
The current mandate of the U.N. force in Sierra Leone runs through next September. But U.N. officials say the peacekeepers may have to stay longer, and perhaps even near full strength for a while.
Undersecretary-General Jean-Marie Guehenno, the head of U.N. peacekeeping operations, says smooth elections in Sierra Leone do not guarantee a smooth outcome, unless both the winners and the losers accept the results.
"And so we are going to monitor very closely the next few months," he said. "And I think in the fall we will be in a better position to make an assessment on how we should downsize the force, depending on how the results of the elections have been digested in a democratic way, if I may say."
Sierra Leone has some critical security issues to address, including the on-going process of reintegrating ex-combatants. U.N. officials say they are more than $13 million short of what is required for the rehabilitation of former fighters, who may have been demobilized but lack prospects for the future.
Undersecretary-General Guehenno warns the challenges for Sierra Leone are daunting. "It will be crucial for the international community to continue to support a country that has been weakened by years of war," he said. "And the international community will have to make sure not to rush to the exits, so to speak, without making sure that it is leaving behind a situation that has been stabilized in depth."
U.N. officials are also worried about the conflict in neighboring Liberia, and the destabilizing effect refugees from that war might have on a still fragile Sierra Leone. "The borders between those countries are very porous," he said. "Any notion that you can have a tight border is not very realistic. There is always a possibility that people will try to take refuge, for instance, in Sierra Leone, which would become a harbor of peace."
Conflict erupted in Sierra Leone more than 10 years ago, in 1991. Veteran political observers say this is the first time they feel real hope for the country because the international community finally responded to the crisis in a unified and credible manner.
The U.N. Security Council deployed peacekeepers in Sierra Leone in October 1999, gradually increasing their strength to the current level. It is the U.N.'s largest peacekeeping operation today.