The UN peacekeepers are leaving Sierre Leone after six years in that troubled nation. They lost 150 soldiers who died while protecting civilians and fulfilling their mandate. When they first arrived, the government was none existent, and rebels chopped off the hands of civilians and killed thousands of civilians.


FREETOWN, Sierra Leone - The last soldiers in what was once the United Nations' biggest peacekeeping force packed up old refrigerators and fax machines Friday, striking camp after six years helping end Sierra Leone's civil war.

If the peace holds after the U.N. mission's mandate expires Saturday, it will be a watershed moment in efforts to restore calm to war-battered West Africa.

Fighting ended here in 2002 and elections that year led to a U.N.-guarded peace, but the roots of conflict that have sparked wars in many parts of the region, including corruption and poverty, remain firmly planted in Sierra Leone.

"Listen to the popular music, most of the music for Sierra Leone is singing for change, singing about corruption," said Roseline Tunubu, a 30-year-old salesclerk in the capital, Freetown.

The top U.N. official in Sierra Leone, Daudi Ngelautwa Mwakawago of Tanzania, said peace has been restored thanks in part to U.N. troops. But he cautioned during an Associated Press interview that Sierra Leone remains burdened by "a lot of debt, a lot of abject poverty."

Few people anywhere have suffered as did Sierra Leone's 5 million people during the 1991-2002 war, which drew in fighters from across West Africa and was among the most brutal ever seen in the region.

The Revolutionary United Front, which claimed its goal was to liberate the people from a corrupt government, set off the war by battling to control the diamond fields of the east.

Its fighters, many of them children kidnapped from their parents, often went into combat under the influence of drugs. Seeking to cow the population, the rebels chopped off arms, ears and feet of civilians.

Pro-government hunting societies that were deputized to battle the rebels often employed similarly brutal tactics. Coup leaders who toppled an elected government in 1997 and allied themselves with the rebels were ousted by a Nigerian-led military force in 1998.

Leaders from the rebels, the hunting societies and the short-lived junta now face war crimes charges before a U.N.-backed tribunal in Freetown, a town of British colonial-style clapboard houses that is without reliable electricity or water.

The U.N. peacekeeping force, which was authorized by the Security Council in late 1999, stumbled at first. Through a series of errors, hundreds of peacekeepers were kidnapped in 2000 and the rebels then used U.N. weapons and uniforms to fight.

West African and British intervention forces helped impose an end to fighting, which U.N. troops numbering 17,500 at the deployment's height have largely kept a lid on. Aside from a small detachment staying to guard the war crimes tribunal, the peacekeepers are going home.

Mwakawago, the U.N. envoy, called the mission an "outstanding success."

Speaking at a farewell news conference, he said the high point for him was that "the drawdown of the peacekeeping troops was done in such a manner that it has not shaken the peace, security and stability of this country."

If the peace holds, a major hurdle to peace in West Africa will come down. The country's conflict was intertwined with that in neighboring Liberia, now also calm, and its fighters marauded across borders, spreading suffering and chaos.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's office said the mission had disarmed and reintegrated 75,000 combatants into civilian life, helped oversee elections in 2002 and 2004, and trained security forces.

"The people of Sierra Leone, assisted by the international community, have put the country on the path of economic recovery," Annan's spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said in a statement. "But much remains to be done."

Sierra Leoneans hope the army, trained by British troops, won't meddle in politics as the central government takes charge of security and heads toward a presidential election set for 2007.

The diamond fields of the east, where shirtless workers sift and dig in mud pits, are now yielding tens of millions of dollars annually to state coffers, not rebel forces. But over half the mining is still illegal.

In a country with 70 percent unemployment, and where many people live on less than $1 a day, rising prices for fuel oil, gas and the staple food, rice, are causing concern that desperate people might again take up weapons to obtain basic needs.

"Tomatoes, oil, onions, you know things are more expensive now. More expensive than even the war. To get the fish in the market, you get it at a very high rate. Meat as well," said Frank Coker, 42, a driver.

"It's true the war is finished," he added. "But we live so hard."

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