18, 2002, 1:45pm EST
More than a decade after a civil war began in the tiny West African
nation of Sierra Leone, rebel and government groups gathered Friday
to publicly declare an end to the bloody conflict.
The nation's president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, joined with Ghanaian President John Kufuor to light a giant bonfire of 3,000 weapons to mark the moment.
"The war is over," Kabbah told thousands who gathered near the capital of Freetown to witness the spectacle. "Go and enjoy yourselves."
As many as 50,000 people died in a decade of brutal civil war. Many thousands more were horribly mutilated, raped or tortured during the fighting between the government and the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF.
The RUF's interim leader, Issa Sesay, joined Kabbah at Friday's ceremony.
"No weapons are needed to be used ever again," Rueters quoted Sesay as saying. "Let our internally displaced ... feel confidence to return to their homes."
The United Nations says hundreds of thousands fled their homes when rebel and militia fighting led to thousands of indiscriminate killings and maimings.
The RUF's leader, Foday Sankoh, has been in government custody since 2000. He launched the war in March 1991, saying he hoped to end decades of conflict, but most blame him for the systematic campaign of terror that left thousands without arms or legs.
|The UN's Role|
Friday's ceremony capped months of work to implement a UN-brokered peace plan, under which more than 47,500 rebels and government militiamen have turned in their weapons.
Advocates for peacekeeping have hailed the Sierra Leone announcement as proof that the deadly and troubled mission was worthwhile.
Deployed in 1999 to implement a ceasefire and disarmament, the peacekeepers often found themselves under attack from rebel or militia troops.
The entire mission nearly collapsed in May of 2000 when hundreds of international forces were taken hostage by rebel fighters. The former colonial force in the region, Britain, intervened to rescue the peacekeepers and protect the war-torn capital.
In November, the UN oversaw the signing of a second ceasefire that imported a larger international force and deployed it throughout the country.
With the civil war apparently at an end, the UN has already begun to organize a special court to hear accusations of war crimes against both government and rebel leaders.
The former RUF leader, Sankoh, is expected to be one of the first to face the court.