Monrovia — Liberia's disarmament programme will be extended until the end of this year, the United Nations said on Wednesday, dashing hopes that all former combatants would hand in their weapons before the UN starts to bring refugees home in October.
"We are hoping to conclude the entire disarmament process by December," Joseph Owonibi, the deputy commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Liberia, told reporters.
His boss, Force Commander Daniel Opande, had said last month that he wanted to see disarmament wrapped up by October when the UN refugee agency UNHCR is due to begin the repatriation of some 300,000 people from neighbouring countries.
The United Nations has poured 15,000 peacekeepers into Liberia, which this month celebrated one year of peace after 14 years of civil war.
But vast tracts of the heavily-forested West African country remain inaccessible to UN patrols and officials admit that only one in three people registering for the disarmament is actually handing in a weapon.
In February, the UN Special Representative Jacques Klein estimated that there were around three weapons per combatant in Liberia.
However, figures released by the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in July showed that on average, only one rifle, rocket launcher, pistol or mortar round was being handed in for every three fighters stepping forward to claim their US$300 resettlement grant and assistance with education or vocational training.
Liberia's national disarmament commission said on Wednesday that 68,730 ex-fighters had been disarmed to date, but it could not provide details about the number of weapons they had handed in.
However, Owonibi had a word of warning for anyone thinking of squirrelling away a weapon, promising that authorities would be keep a watchful eye beyond 2004.
"After the programme, we have our plans made up to go around to search areas for weapons and anyone found with weapons would be prosecuted," he said.
The UNMIL deputy force commander said that disarmament centres established last April in Gbarnga in north central Liberia and Buchanan, a port city 120 km east of Monrovia, had already closed.
But he stressed that UNMIL was continuing to open new cantonment sites in remote parts of the country where former combatants have not yet had an opportunity to disarm.
Last week, a new disarmament camp opened in Ganta, a stronghold of forces loyal to former president Charles Taylor in Nimba county, near the Guinean border.
Owonibi said two more sites would open soon.
One at Voinjama in the far northwest of Liberia, would demobilise fighters of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel group who still control most of Lofa County - the area to which most refugees in neighbouring Sierra Leone and Guinea are expected to return.
The other at Harper, a port town near the Ivorian border, would target attract combatants from the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), another rebel group which still controls much of the southeast.
Five other disarmament sites in rural Liberia were still taking in former-combatants, Owonibi said.
These are situated in Tubmanburg, a LURD stronghold 60 km north-west of Monrovia; VOA camp on the outskirts of Monrovia and Ganta, which are mainly dealing with former Taylor fighters; and Zwedru and Tappita which are disarming MODEL combatants near the eastern border with Cote d'Ivoire.
UNMIL kicked off the disarmament programme on 15 April after a false start in December.