UN seeks to repatriate foreign combatants

Ruud Lubbers, the head of the United Nation's refugee agency UNHCR, said on Wednesday that he would seek to repatriate foreigners from several West African countries who became combatants in Liberia's civil war.

Lubbers told a press conference at the end of a three-day visit to Liberia that a number of foreigners were handing in their guns as part of Liberia's disarmament, demobilisation and rehabilitation exercise, which began last month.

Most of these mercenaries were from neighbouring Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire, he added.

"After demobilisation, for the people who have been reported as non-Liberians and former combatants, I will make a plea with their countries to accept them for repatriation," the former Dutch prime minister said.

It is not yet clear how many combatants from other West African states were sucked into Liberia's 14-year civil war. Asked how many foreigners had joined the country's three armed factions, Lubbers said : "I can only say they are in limited numbers - I do not know the numbers."

Lubbers said he would promote meetings between the UNHCR and the governments of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire to discuss the repatriation of these former combatants.

Some Sierra Leonean fighters, who had previously served in the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) are known to have fought in militia units loyal to former Liberian president Charles Taylor, particularly since the end of Sierra Leone's own civil war in 2001.

One of them, Sam Bockarie, the former military commander of the RUF, was killed in Liberia in May last year.

Diplomats and aid workers say many Guineans and Ivorians were meanwhile recruited into the two rebel movements which finally succeeded in driving Taylor from power last year.

It is an open secret that Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) was heavily supported by Guinea, while the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) was strongly backed by Cote d'Ivoire.

Sources close to both rebel movements told IRIN that Guineans and Ivorians were recruited into these factions as well as Liberian refugees living in the two countries.