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Talks In Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's government held crucial talks with rebels in the capital on Tuesday to discuss a timetable for disarming combatants in the West African nation's 10-year-old civil war, the United Nations said.

Oluyemi Adeniji, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative to Sierra Leone, said "major strides" toward peace had been made since a cease-fire was signed in Abuja, Nigeria, in November.

"It is essential both in the interests of overall peace in Sierra Leone and in the interests of the peace and security of individuals, that we get the process right," said Adeniji, who chaired the talks.

A rebel delegation, led by Omrie Golley, arrived in Freetown on Monday. The visit marks the first time Revolutionary United Front rebels have entered the capital since last May, when they plunged the country back into war, took 500 U.N. peacekeepers hostage, and began advancing toward Freetown despite a 1999 peace deal ending hostilities.

Attorney-General and Minister of Justice Solomon Berewa, who led the government delegation, welcomed the rebels to Freetown and said they could return any time they wished. "We are all citizens of Sierra Leone," he said.

The talks follow a meeting in Nigeria earlier this month where both the government and RUF agreed to stick to the November cease-fire that has allowed U.N. troops to deploy in rebel-held areas.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission, numbering some 12,000 men, is the largest in the world.

Most Sierra Leoneans deeply fear the rebels, who have hacked off the limbs of tens of thousands of civilians and killed, raped and maimed many more in a campaign to control the country's diamond fields.

Click here for images of the civil war. Some of the photographs are graphic.

The war is closely linked to fighting at the junction between the borders of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone which threatens to escalate into a regional conflict and has claimed well over 1,000 lives since the middle of last year.

Golley said the rebels believe "the fighting is over." But he said attacks on rebel positions continued in the east.

U.N. peacekeepers confirmed last week that a pro-government militia, the Kamajor, had launched several attacks against the rebels this month, sparking fresh clashes that threatened the peace process.

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Golley said the attacks were "inconsistent" with the disarmament.

The rebels and the militia agreed Tuesday to stop all hostilities in order to protect a cease-fire.

"We…solemnly undertake to ensure the cessation of all hostilities," said a joint statement at the meeting from the RUF and the government's Civil Defense Force, which oversees the Kamajors.

The groups said that the U.N. peacekeeping force would "immediately ensure the observance of this undertaking as well as the unimpeded movement of persons, goods and services throughout the country."

Hundreds of British troops rushed to bolster the U.N. force last May and have since been training the army of elected President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

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