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Sierra Leone: UN troops to leave by the end of the year

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DAKAR, 1 July (IRIN) - The UN Security Council has voted to close down the UN peacekeeping operation in Sierra Leone by the end of December, with the next contingent of troops due to pull out in mid-August.

About 3,400 peacekeepers remain in the West African nation, three and a half years after the official end to a brutal civil war, which shocked the world with its images of drugged-up youths hacking the arms, legs, ears and lips off civilians.

The UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) was created in October 1999 to help restore peace to Sierra Leone. At its height, it boasted 17,000 troops and was the biggest UN peacekeeping operation in the world.

The force was originally supposed to withdraw from Sierra Leone at the end of last year, but its mandate was extended because of security concerns in neighbouring Liberia and Guinea and delays in preparing the Sierra Leonean army and police to take over full responsibility for internal security.

However, there have been no security incidents requiring UN support since the peacekeepers handed over primary responsibility for security to the Sierra Leone government last September. And by the end of 2005, all the blue helmets should have left.

On Thursday, the 15-nation Security Council, in an unanimous vote, extended UNAMSIL's mandate for a final period of six months until 31 December.

In his latest report to the Council on Sierra Leone, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recommended that the drawdown of troops should begin in mid-August, but warned that the situation remained fragile and that much remained to be done to address the underlying causes of conflict in the country.

Annan also said that UNAMSIL needed to remain on its guard during the run-up to presidential and parliament elections in neighbouring Liberia on 11 October, since that country has also recently emerged from civil war.

"The last (UNAMSIL) infantry battalion and air assets should remain fully operational until the end of November, by which time the results of the elections in Liberia will be known," Annan wrote.

The UN chief said although the presence of UN troops in Sierra Leone would soon no longer be necessary, UN agencies must step up their efforts to help the country recover from its devastating 1991-2001 civil war.

Sierra Leone is the poorest country in the world, according to the UN Human Development Index. About 70 percent of the country's six million people still live on less than a dollar a day.

The Security Council called for a "seamless transition from peacekeeping to peacebuilding".

UNAMSIL's drawdown comes as the United Nations is reinforcing other peacekeeping forces in the region.

Last week, the Security Council voted to send an extra 850 peacekeepers to reinforce the 6,000 already on the ground in war-divided Cote d'Ivoire. It also raised the possibility of UN forces stationed in Liberia and Sierra Leone temporarily reinforcing the Cote d'Ivoire force.

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