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UN Peacekeepers Postpone Liberia Disarmament Program - 2003-12-15

U.N. peacekeepers in Liberia are suspending a disarmament program for one month to better organize the process. Many Liberians are worried about this delay.

The decision to postpone the continuation of disarmament for a one-month period from Wednesday until January 20 was taken at a meeting Sunday in Monrovia.

The program entailed giving former fighters $300 in exchange for their weapons, food rations, vocational training and also temporary living quarters.

A U.N. spokeswoman, Margaret Novicki, said the problem was that too many former fighters were showing up to hand in their weapons since the program started at one camp outside the capital earlier this month.

"We're taking a pause in the program to enable us to make sure that we have enough facilities in the camp to handle the number of combatants that are disarming. The camp, Camp Schieffelin, the cantonment site that we have opened, was intended for a capacity of 1,000 combatants at a time," she said. "What we have seen in a very short period over a week is over 9,000 combatants coming in to disarm, and quite honestly we are very concerned about the welfare of the combatants in the camp. There are a lot of facilities that have to be expanded in the camp in order to handle the numbers."

Camp Schieffelin has been set up just to handle former pro-government militia fighters. Two other camps aimed at disarming former rebel fighters have yet to open.

One Monrovia resident said the disarmament delay over the Christmas holiday is putting a damper on hopes that peace will finally take hold after 15 years of nearly continuous civil war. "The postponement of the process to disarm is unfortunate given the level of enthusiasm by almost every fighter to disarm," said Mamade Bility. "I also fear that the issues of giving credence to Christmas celebrations right now is insignificant given the level of our human degradation we're going through."

The scheduled nine-month, $50 million program got off to a violent start last week when some former militia fighters, unimpressed by the incentive package for disarmament, went on a three-day looting and shooting rampage that left at least 12 people dead.

One problem was that U.N. officials were unable to give the $300 to fighters in exchange for their weapons immediately, instead promising payment installments.

At least 6,000 U.N. peacekeepers are in Liberia, slowly trying to re-establish security. Estimates of the number of former armed combatants range from 40,000 to 60,000.

Fighting ended in August with the departure of former president Charles Taylor, himself a former rebel, into exile in Nigeria. An interim leader, businessman Gyude Bryant, has been mandated with preparing elections in 2005.