UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
LIBERIA: Bring out hidden weapons, says UN force commander
TUBMANBURG, 26 Apr 2004 (IRIN) - The commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping force in Liberia, General Daniel Opande, has warned fighters of Liberian warring parties not to hide weapons during the war-torn country's disarmament programme.
"For any former fighter to be caught with hidden arms will constitute a criminal offence," warned Opande. The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) commander was speaking in Tubmanburg, 60 kilometres north of the capital Monrovia, where 250 former combatants from the former rebel movement Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) were disarmed at a third UNMIL cantonment site.
Flanked by UN force officers, Opande warned former fighters of all sides: "If they have any hidden weapons, they must now turn those weapons over to UNMIL."
The UNMIL disarmament programme was re-launched in the LURD stronghold of Gbarnga on April 15. Days later a second cantonment site was opened to disarm fighters from the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) in their eastern stronghold, Buchanan.
Although UNMIL chiefs have praised the peaceful manner in which the process is being conducted, there is growing concern that not all the weapons in circulation are being collected from fighters.
"If you have more than one weapon, do not give me one and keep the other," Opande told ex-combatants. "If you have a hundred rounds of ammunitions, a hundred weapons, bring them all! UNMIL will not allow anyone to hide weapons and let this be a clear message for LURD, MODEL and former government fighters".
In the streets of Tubmanburg, LURD fighters were seen carrying ammunition, hand grenades, mortar rounds and rocket grenades as they headed jubilantly for the disarmament site.
Some of the fighters chanted: "The war is over! We want peace - no more war!" as two UN fighter helicopters flew overhead.
General Prince Seo, acting Chief of Staff of LURD, handed in his AK47 assault rifle. Six other officers from the LURD top brass also surrendered weapons. Seo told IRIN that all of his men were ready to be disarmed by UNMIL.
"Today, it is time for peace, yesterday was for war and we are now assembling all of our fighters in far away villages to disarm to UNMIL," said Seo, who made a further presentation of two-truck loads of mostly anti-aircraft rounds and an anti-aircraft machine gun.
LURD leader Sekou Conneh and other members of the rebel movement's political leadership did not attend the disarmament ceremony.
According to Opande, over 3000 fighters have been disarmed since the UN's programme was re-launched in mid-April. Once relieved of their weapons, fighters will be placed in a cantonment unit for one week, where they will receive medical attention and psychological counselling as well as discussing vocational training options. At the end of the week, each will be given US$ 150.
A further US$ 150 payment will be made to help fighters reintegrate when they return to their hometowns and villages for the vocational training.
In neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire, where a UN peacekeeping operation is just beginning, former combatants will receive twice as much money for the guns that they hand in.
There is concern in Liberia that the disarmament scheme is open to abuse with even some non-combatants trying to benefit from the disarmament package on offer. Monrovia residents have reported cases of fighters who have given out weapons to people who have never previously born arms in return for a share in their disarmament payments of US$ 300.
There are an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 former combatants in Liberia. Opande said that Tubmanburg was the starting point for the expansion of the disarmament exercise in LURD's western and northern territories.
"In the next few weeks, we will extend the disarmament to Grand Cape Mount, Gbarpolu [in the far north-west] before reaching as far as Lofa in the north," Opande added.
Lofa county saw some of the fiercest fighting in Liberia's 14 years of brutal civil war. The conflicted ended in August last year with the signing of a peace deal and the international community's approval of a 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping force.
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