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UN Force Commanders: Disarmament Essential  for  End of Civil Wars in  West  Africa

The heads of United Nations peacekeeping missions in West Africa say disarmament remains the biggest challenge in their effort to bring peace to the region.

The military chiefs of U.N. missions in Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone met Friday in Abidjan for the third time in three months, as they try to boost cooperation in an effort to rid the region of civil wars.

The longest of these - nearly 15 years - has been in Liberia, where Kenyan General Daniel Opande says a disarmament process had to be suspended last year because there were too few U.N. peacekeepers to monitor the process.

"Of course, there were hitches, and we have accepted that there were hitches," he said. "There were difficulties that we had to surmount. And that's what we have done up to now, and I can assure you that when we begin disarming our next time around, we are going to ensure that it goes on, whether there are difficulties or no difficulties, until we complete it."

General Opande expects a full deployment of 15,000 U.N. troops in Liberia by April, so that the disarmament of rebel groups can resume, and expand throughout the country.

In Ivory Coast, the U.N. mission is just 75 military liaison officers, helping several thousand French and West African peacekeepers.

The head of the mission, Bangladeshi General Abdul Hafiz, says he is confident disarmament in Ivory Coast is about to begin. He says he is meeting with Ivorian army officials and rebels to try to get a disarmament process started.

Northern-based rebels who started their insurgency in September 2002 have been slow to disarm, as very little of a peace deal signed last year has been implemented.

The most successful U.N. peacekeeping mission in West Africa has been what is known by its acronym UNAMSIL in Sierra Leone. Earlier this month, the force there finished disarming more than 70,000 fighters after a decade-long conflict, which ended in 2002.

That force's mandate will come to an end in December, but its head, General Sajjad Akram from Pakistan, says it could be replaced by a smaller force next year.

In the meantime, he said the current force is also helping monitor the Liberian-Sierra Leonean border to make sure mercenaries, smuggled goods and guns are not going through to Liberia, where the situation is still tense.

"UNAMSIL is carrying out very robust patrolling along the Sierra Leonean-Liberian border," he said. "The patrols are both by air, as well as ground patrols. And we're helping directly or indirectly Liberia to survey its borders. And we help Liberia as well as Sierra Leone by carrying out this, and ensuring there is no cross-border movements of the ex-combatants."

General Akram also said he is sharing his expertise with the two other generals on how to conduct an efficient disarmament campaign.

In a joint statement, the three generals said it is a new challenge to work together, because this is the first time there are three U.N. military missions deployed in three neighboring countries. They said only a regional approach can effectively end the spiral of civil wars here, but that they are still developing the best ways to work together.