By EDITH M. LEDERER
UNITED NATIONS (AP) _ The U.N. Security Council lavished rare praise Wednesday on Sierra Leone, a country once known for “blood diamonds” and rebels chopping limbs off innocent civilians, which now contributes soldiers to U.N. peacekeeping missions and aspires to be a middle-income country by 2030.
At a meeting formally wrapping up 15 years of U.N. peacekeeping and peacebuilding in Sierra Leone, the council commended “the remarkable achievements” made by Sierra Leone over the past decade in strengthening institutions that are crucial to safeguarding stability and promoting democracy.
The council also commended “the effectiveness” of the United Nations, international financial institutions, regional groups and the international community in building peace in the West African nation after a long and bloody civil war that began in 1991 when rebels launched an insurrection to seize control of the government and diamond mines.
By the late 1990s, rebels from the Revolutionary United Front had begun targeting civilians, making a trademark out of hacking off the limbs of those victims they allowed to live. In May 2000, the rebels seized about 500 U.N. peacekeepers and kept 233 others surrounded for 2 1/2 months, severely embarrassing the United Nations and prompting a reassessment of the U.N. mission.
The U.N. force, which had an initial ceiling of 6,000 troops when it was first authorized in 1999, was beefed up to a high of 17,500 troops in March 2001. The civil war ended less than a year later, in January 2002, with the decisive intervention of U.N. peacekeepers and British troops.
Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said the day “marks a watershed in the history of Sierra Leone and is a moment of celebration for the people of Sierra Leone, the United Nations, and the Security Council.”
Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma said in a statement read to the council by Foreign Minister Samura Kamara that the council’s inspiring words provided “healing therapy for a country that has emerged from a massively devastating suffered internal conflict,” and “crowns” the success of the country’s transition from war to peace.
“A country that once received peacekeepers is now contributing peacekeepers to other countries,” Koroma said. “A country that was once a byword for humanitarian crisis now has one of the fastest growing economies in the world; a country that succumbed to military dictatorship has held a succession of free and fair elections.”
The Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed that many challenges remain.
Jens Anders Toyberg-Frandzen, the U.N. representative to Sierra Leone, identified the key remaining challenges as tackling pervasive poverty and youth unemployment, endemic corruption, upholding the rule of law, and widening “the political space” which should be done during the current review of the country’s constitution.
Koroma said the government has taken “a collective decision to move towards becoming a middle-income nation by 2030.”
“The journey has been a challenging one, and there are remaining challenges, but there shall be no turning back,” the president said. “We shall continue to be a force for peace in the world, a symbol, a symbol of successful transformation and a partner for peace, security, democracy and development.”
As the foreign minister read Koroma’s final words, the Security Council _ in an unusual gesture _ burst into applause.
The U.N. political mission, which replaced the peacekeeping mission in 2008, will cease to exist when its mandate expires on March 31. The United Nations will then be represented by a country team with representatives from different agencies, as it is in many other countries, assisted for the next year by the U.N. Peacebuilding Commission.