UN forces can start Liberia withdrawal in 4 years

United Nations forces can begin withdrawing from Liberia in about four years time having bolstered the country after a ruinous civil war, Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf said last week.

UN peacekeepers went into the West African state after the 14-year conflict ended in 2003, and about 10 000 of them remain propping up fledging new national security forces.

Asked when the country would be able to stand on its feet without peacekeepers, Johnson-Sirleaf told Reuters after talks with a Security Council delegation: “Two years after the elections. Then we can ask everybody to leave.”

Presidential elections are due in 2011.

Some members of the Security Council are concerned at the cost of maintaining a large peacekeeping force in a country no longer at war, but UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has proposed a drawdown of only 2000 before the election.

The United States‘ ambassador to the UN Susan Rice told a news conference after the talks with Johnson-Sirleaf that Liberia was still a “fragile state emerging from conflict.”

“The message we have received is that the current calm is highly fragile and could be disrupted at any point with little warning,” Rice said.

The UN force in Liberia, UNMIL, plays a major security role in a country that has a 2000-strong army still under training from the U.S., and a three-year-old police force that has no weapons.

Crime is widespread, often the work of unemployed ex-combatants, and the economy has been hit by the global financial crisis.

Investment in its natural resources, such as rubber and iron ore, is the keystone of the government’s rebuilding plan, but on Wednesday steelmaker ArcelorMittal said it was delaying a planned iron ore mine there.

There were signs the 24-hour Security Council trip to Liberia had persuaded most members of the 15-nation body that Ban’s cautious drawdown plan was the right one.

Rice, on the Liberian leg of the Security Council’s Africa tour, earlier told reporters: “The US view is that, yes, he is on target.” Rice said the peacekeeping force should be in Liberia “certainly through the 2011 elections and perhaps a little bit longer.”

The US has a special interest in Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves in the nineteenth century. Several other ambassadors also said they believed Ban’s timetable was realistic.

At a meeting with the Security Council team, executives with investors ArcelorMittal and Canadian energy firm Buchanan Renewables urged the peacekeeping force stay for some time to ensure a stable business environment, diplomats said.