March 23, 2012 / 6:13 AM / in 6 years

UN questions Sierra Leone arms purchase before vote

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Sierra Leone’s government should explain why it bought millions of dollars worth of assault weapons to equip a recently enlarged paramilitary wing of its police as the country prepares for elections in November, the outgoing U.N. envoy said on Thursday.

Michael von der Schulenburg told the U.N. Security Council that according to a leaked shipping document the weapons bought by the West African state in January included heavy machine guns and grenade launchers and the purchase was “of great concern.”

“Sierra Leone is under no arms embargo. However, given Sierra Leone’s progress in establishing peace and security throughout the country and its relatively low crime rate, it is not clear why the police would need such weapons,” he said.

He urged the government to clarify the weapons shipment and explain the intended use of the arms.

Schulenburg left Sierra Leone in February, saying that his posting had been cut short by the United Nations under pressure from Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma in a move that Schulenburg said would be seen as “opening the door to manipulating the election outcome in his favor.”

A spokesman for Koroma denied asking the United Nations to remove the outspoken Schulenburg.

Philip Parham, deputy U.N. ambassador for Britain, which this month holds the U.N. Council’s rotating presidency, said the 15-nation panel would reflect on Schulenburg’s departure.

He told reporters the council would also discuss the issue with the U.N. Secretariat “to ensure that as far as possible we avoid any sense that a host government can have a veto over the leadership of a U.N. mission for reasons that are not valid.”

Sierra Leone is recovering from an 11-year civil war that left some 50,000 dead and finally came to an end in 2002, after a British military intervention stiffened a floundering U.N. peacekeeping mission.

“WORRYING SIGNS”

U.N. troops withdrew from Sierra Leone in 2005 but the world body retains a mission of about 200 people with a mandate to help ensure the forthcoming election is peaceful and credible.

“The forthcoming elections in November will be the major test for the country’s nascent democracy. Sierra Leone must pass this crucial test in its history without allowing the demons of the past to re-emerge,” Schulenburg said.

Sierra Leone’s Foreign Minister Joseph Dauda told the Security Council that the government was committed to ensuring peaceful, free, fair and transparent elections in November. He did not address Schulenburg’s question about the arms shipment.

“The government has demonstrated strong political will in dealing with issues of political violence in whatever shape or form and irrespective of party affiliation, and will continue to use the legal instruments to bring perpetrators of violence to justice,” Dauda said.

But Schulenburg said there had been “worrying signs” ahead of the poll, including an attack on the opposition presidential candidate, an attack by opposition members on property of the governing party, a three-month ban on political party rallies and a break-in at a newspaper critical of the government.

“Further the hardening tone of the political rhetoric is of concern and all sides must refrain from extreme and unsubstantiated accusations,” he said.

“Sierra Leone has the potential to become a success story but it will need the continued support and vigilance of the Security Council - especially at this time of these elections,” Schulenburg said.

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