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Final day of Liberia disarmament

January 31, 1997

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ Rebel fighters lined up to surrender weapons Friday, the deadline for nationwide disarmament. But some made clear they were reluctant to give up the guns that had been their livelihood for seven years.

Questions remain over how successful the disarmament program has been. By early Friday the total number of demobilized fighters was estimated at about 15,000, far lower than the 60,000 fighters the United Nations estimates are in the country.

Peacekeeping officials said they would not give the final disarmament figure until Saturday.

The disarmament began in November under an accord signed last year by the country’s six warlords to end Liberia’s seven-year civil war. If it succeeds _ and 13 previous ones have failed _ elections for a new president will be held May 30.

Faction leaders recently have insisted the U.N. number was far inflated and that the actual number of fighters is about 23,000. The commander of a multinational African peacekeeping force enforcing disarmament, Gen. Victor Malu, put the figure at about 35,000 and said he would be happy if half of them were demobilized by Friday.

After Friday, he has warned, peacekeepers will arrest anyone seen carrying weapons.

Several of those lined up Friday at a disarmament site in the capital, Monrovia, said they were not happy to be giving up the only way of life they ever had known.

``No, I want to keep it,″ 18-year-old Paul Mitchell of the Ulimo-J faction said as he prepared to surrender his AK-47 assault rifle. ``I want revenge, but the government is forcing me to give it up.″

Ulimo-J was at the center of fighting from April to June that devastated the capital, killing at least 1,500 people and prompting the United States’ military airlift of foreigners from the city.

``I call my pistol mama, papa,″ said another young man, 19-year-old John Saah, who like most of Liberia’s youths joined the war as a child and has never had anything resembling a normal family life or childhood.

``I’ll be sad to give it up,″ Saah said of the gun he’s carried since 1990, ``but I’m tired of holding it now. It’s time to get back to school.″

Disarmament also continued at dozens of designated demobilization sites across the country. In exchange for their weapons, each fighter was given some food, farming tools and coupons for attendance in school or perhaps a place on a U.N. food-for-work program.

Liberia’s civil war began in December 1989 and has killed at least 200,000 people, most of them civilians.

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