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Sierra Leone Concerned About Pakistani Peacekeepers' Withdrawal

Officials in Sierra Leone are expressing concern about reports that Pakistan is considering withdrawing its troops from the U.N. peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone. The officials are worried a Pakistan pullout would jeopardize the country's return to peace.

Pakistan has provided more than 4,000 of the 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Sierra Leone, the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world.

The Pakistani contingent was among the first to deploy in some of the rebel-held areas most devastated during Sierra Leone's 10 year civil war.

The head of Sierra Leone's National Commission for Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration, Francis Kaikai, tells VOA the Pakistanis have stood out from the rest, doing much more than serving as peacekeepers.

"They have gone beyond the normal call of duty. They have had to establish roads in areas where roads have been abandoned for the last 10 years. They have helped to establish some basic health facilities in those areas to serve the population. Of course, of overriding importance is the security situation, which they have helped stabilize," he said.

Officials with the U.N. mission in Sierra Leone have said they have not received information from U.N. headquarters on if or how the 4,200 Pakistani peacekeepers would be replaced.

Mr. Kaikai said that if the Pakistani troops are replaced, he fears their pullout will cause a disruption in the process of consolidating peace in the country.

"People can always be replaced. But it is a question of the time it takes between establishing oneself and understanding the ground situation. The Pakistanis have actually mastered the situation in that part of Sierra Leone. Just bringing in another new contingent here [would be] very difficult in our circumstances. Our refugees have been coming in droves back to those areas because of the kind of stability they have seen. If they hear that the peacekeepers are withdrawing, I think it will not go down well with the local population," he said.

Last week, Sierra Leone held its first presidential election since the end of the war was declared in January. Observers have praised the election as generally peaceful and fair.

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, who is credited for his efforts to end the war, was re-elected in a landslide. On Wednesday, he announced his new cabinet, made up mostly of members of his Sierra Leone People's Party.

The poll was seen as one of the final steps in returning peace to the country after a war that killed tens-of-thousands of people.