FREETOWN (Reuters) - Twelve years after they arrived during the West African country’s devastating civil war, the last United Nations troops officially withdrew from Sierra Leone Thursday.
The main UN peacekeeping contingent — once the largest such deployment per capita in the world — departed in 2005. But a detachment of troops remained to guard the Special Court set up in 2002 to try those held responsible for the war’s atrocities.
A contingent of Mongolian soldiers — known to expatriates in Freetown as “the Mongol Horde” — has guarded the court since 2006 under the aegis of the UN mission in neighboring Liberia.
“Gentlemen from Mongolia have provided security for this court,” said the special court’s president Justice Jon Kamanda at a ceremony in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown.
“By the efficient working of these gentlemen from far away we have been able to work in peace.”
“Sierra Leoneans are grateful to the international community for the role played in bringing the war to an end,” added Sierra Leone’s vice-president Samuel Sam-Sumana.
Nine years after the end of hostilities in Sierra Leone, and two decades since the beginning of the diamond-fueled conflict, the country is considered a successful example of international intervention.
Multiparty elections in 2007 led to a peaceful transition of power from the Sierra Leone Peoples’ Party to the All People’s Congress.
Under current President Ernest Bai Koroma an increasing number of multinational firms are investing in Sierra Leone.
The situation was once very different. Before the deployment of British troops under separate command in 2000, UNAMSIL, the UN operation in Sierra Leone, was shambolic.
A small number of rebels of the Revolutionary United Front once took an entire armored column of Zambian peacekeepers hostage, and were in danger of overrunning UNAMSIL itself.
A joint undertaking between the UN and the government of Sierra Leone, the Special Court has operated at a substantially lower cost than other international justice mechanisms.
However, a number of its key targets — notably former RUF leader Foday Sankoh — died before verdicts were reached.
The handover of the court’s security from UN troops to Sierra Leonean police comes as its final prosecution, the case against Charles Taylor, has reached its final stages.
For security reasons the Taylor case is being held in the Hague rather than Freetown. There the former Liberian president stands accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sierra Leone.
In a dramatic turn of events last week — as the court was due to hear the final arguments — Taylor’s lawyer stormed out of the courtroom. A verdict is still due later this year.
Editing by Andrew Roche