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Liberia Peacekeepers to Serve Under UN Command - 2003-09-30

The United Nations is preparing to assume peacekeeping duties in Liberia. 3,500 African peacekeepers already on the ground will begin wearing U.N. blue berets on Wednesday.

The U.N. spokesman for Liberia, Farhan Haq, says the process is called re-hatting.

"What will basically happen is that eight different west African countries who have already been providing troops into Liberia under a separate multinational force will instead serve under U.N. command from that day forward," he said. "Over time we will progressively try to build the peacekeeping force up. It can have a maximum authorized troop strength of 15,000."

Within two weeks, troops from Bangladesh are expected to arrive in Liberia. Some have already served for the United Nations in neighboring Sierra Leone.

The U.N. mission in Sierra Leone has disarmed nearly 50,000 fighters since it began work there in 1999, and Mr. Haq says he hopes the success can be repeated in Liberia.

"The U.N. mission in Sierra Leone did help to stabilize the situation and bring us into a peaceful and essentially more democratic outcome than they had enjoyed for many years beforehand," said Farhan Haq.

The U.N. mission has an initial mandate of one year. A transitional Liberian government is to begin work in two weeks to prepare for elections in 2005.

Aid workers hope the start of the U.N. mission will allow them to work in areas beyond the capital, Monrovia. Some also hope Liberian children will be able to go back to school this year.

"The scenario were hoping for is that United Nations peacekeepers can get on the ground swiftly and deploy in the rural areas to actually blanket the country with its presence so we can start operating outside Monrovia as well," said aid worker Peter Biro of the International Rescue Committee. "This is something badly needed in this country now: an increased security presence."

Mr. Biro says some of his group's aid workers have been ambushed by gunmen while traveling outside Monrovia. On other occasions, newly set-up relief camps have been raided by nighttime looters.

Full-scale fighting ended in Liberia in August after former rebel-turned-president Charles Taylor resigned and went into exile in Nigeria.

Rebels who fought four years to topple Mr. Taylor accuse him of endangering the peace process by continuing to meddle in Liberian politics.