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UN Peacekeepers Enter Liberia's Rebel-Held Areas - 2003-12-28

U.N. peacekeepers in Liberia have entered rebel-held territory for the first time as part of efforts to disarm tens-of-thousands of former fighters.

An advance team of peacekeepers was blocked by rebels earlier this week on its way to their western stronghold of Tubmanburg, but has now been allowed to proceed.

The rebels, from the group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), said they had not been consulted. The dispute was resolved during a meeting Friday between rebel leaders and U.N. officials.

Sunday, U.N. troop commander General Daniel Opande called it one of many hiccups in the disarmament process. U.N. troops will soon set up brigade headquarters in Tubmanburg, as well as a disarmament site.

The peacekeepers are establishing similar sites in other rebel strongholds, including in the east and in Monrovia, where former pro-government militias remain armed.

Effective disarmament started briefly in Monrovia this month, but was suspended when too many fighters showed up. Some of the former militiamen rioted after U.N. officials were unable to come up with promised money in exchange for their weapons.

General Opande, who has just returned from a visit to Tubmanburg, said he understands the whole process could be smoother and faster, but that patience is needed.

"I think the Liberians have a right to be frustrated with the slowness of disarmament of the peace process per se," he said. "They have every right to say so, but if they realize that the peace process is not something that you can just like a vehicle, you start it and just moved on up to where you wanted to stop. All in all, I would like to ensure the Liberian people we are on track and we will do what we are expected to do. We are going to ensure that disarmament is completed."

More than 7,000 peacekeeping troops are in Liberia preparing the disarmament process, before scheduled elections in 2005.

Nearly 15 years of almost continuous civil war ended in August when former president Charles Taylor, himself a one-time rebel, fled into exile in Nigeria.

West African peacekeepers were the first to arrive, just before Mr. Taylor's departure, but during their first five months international troops have concentrated on securing just the capital, Monrovia, leaving other areas prone to ongoing looting.