The United Nations operation in Sierra Leone will hand over control of the capital, Freetown, to the armed forces and police forces on Thursday.

Spokesman Kemal Saiki with the U.N. mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) says the Freetown handover is one of the last major steps toward the U.N. withdrawal.

"A number of areas in the country have been handed over to the Sierra Leone police and the Republic of Sierra Leone police forces," he said. "Today, we are having a formal handover of security primacy for the capital area, Freetown, and its surrounding districts are going to be placed now under the authority of Sierra Leone police and armed forces. That means the check points and all security measures, patrols, and whatever, which used to be the responsibility of UNAMSIL troops [are] going to be now under the authority of the Sierra Leone security agencies."

UNAMSIL was once the largest peacekeeping operation in the world, but it is preparing what it calls a "draw down" to reduce the number of peacekeepers, and hand over full control of the country by the end of June next year.

The United Nations has been in Sierra Leone since 1999, after a peace agreement between the government and rebels was signed to end a decade-long civil war. The war was marked by grave abuses by rebel forces, including rape and amputation of limbs of victims.

Mr. Saiki says the original full force of 17,500 peacekeepers will be greatly reduced by the end of this year.

"In our evaluation, the authorities of this country are ready to shoulder the responsibility, because, at the end of the day, the U.N. cannot stay indefinitely in this country, and there has to be a gradual handover of responsibility to the people of this country, and this is what we are doing," he added. "This being said, as part of the draw-down program [force reduction program], as of December, the total number of our troops in country will be 3,500."

Mr. Saiki says the United Nations is working with the local police and armed forces to teach logistics, and assist in a smooth transition. Mr. Saiki says a number of key points for the handover have been met, but there is still concern about a lack of equipment for the Sierra Leone forces.

The U.N. mandate in Sierra Leone has been extended several times, and last week, the Security Council extended it until June 2005.