Peter Kahler, PANA Correspondent
MONROVIA, Liberia (PANA) - More than 200 self-exiled Sierra Leonean soldiers and their families Monday left Monrovia for Freetown on board a chartered vessel.
They are the second batch of such soldiers and ex-combatants in Sierra Leone's eight-year civil war to voluntarily return home. A similar number returned home in November.
Some 3,000 soldiers and ex-combatants who fled the country live as refugees in Liberia, according to the Sierra Leonean ambasador, Kemoh Salia-Bao.
They are scattered in refugee camps in Kolahun, Vahun and Voinjama in northern Lofa County, as well as two camps outside of Monrovia and another in Senji, north-western Liberia.
Salia-Bao said the soldiers, who mainly belonged to the 35th battalion in Daru, eastern Sierra Leone, fled after the ouster of the military junta of Johnny Paul Koroma by the West African peace monitoring group in early 1998.
The ambassador said the government was repatriating them due to "apprehension that the presence of such a large number of combatants in neighbouring Liberia could pose of threat to the peace process in Sierra Leone."
The head of the departing soldiers, Lt. M.S. Kamara, told PANA that they escaped to Liberia "to remain neutral in the conflict."
He added that they are hoping to be re-instated in the army.
In another development, the government of Liberia and Sierra Leone have agreed to set up a joint security committee to investigate reports of subversive dissident activities in each other's country.
Deep-seated suspicions continue to abound between the two countries that the other might be harbouring dissidents bent on destabilising the other.
Sierra Leone's vice-president, Albert Demby, told reporters in Monrovia Saturday that the creation of the committee followed a closed-door meeting with Liberian president Charles Taylor concerning "suspected dissident group being trained" in Liberia to destabilise Sierra Leone.
He said the proposed committee will visit areas in the two countries where suspected dissidents are reported to be stationed, and if identified, they are to be prosecuted in keeping with the laws of the host country.
Meanwhile, the Liberian information ministry Saturday announced the lifting of the "state of persona non grata" imposed on Sierra Leone deputy defence minister Sam Hinga Norman when he resided in Liberia a few years ago and headed the "Kamajor" civil defence force.
The ministry said in a statement the decision was taken recently due to the level of the peace process in Sierra Leone and the "dynamic role" of Norman in fostering the peace process.
Norman was part of vice president Demby's delegation which visited Liberia at the weekend.
The statement also announced that Taylor has extended an invitation to the commander of rebel Revolutionary United Front, Sam Bockarie, in a bid to resolve differences he (Bockarie) may have with Foday Sankoh, the front's leader.
Sankoh has been in Liberia for nearly a week, apparently awaiting the meeting with Bockarie who is reported to have fled his Kailahun command post after allegedly executing some senior officers of the front.
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