United Nations, Mar 16: Liberia remains fragile even with a new reform-minded president in office, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, calling for the UN peacekeeping force there to be kept at about its current levels.
Annan, in his latest progress report to the UN Security Council, said the 15,000-strong force now in the war-shattered West African nation would be cut back by just 250 soldiers by the end of March.
Based on the findings of a U.N. assessment mission that visited Liberia last month, he recommended a further reduction of just one battalion -- typically 600 to 800 soldiers -- in mid-2006.
If all goes well, another battalion could be withdrawn early in 2007, he said. In the meantime, he recommended that the 15-nation council renew the U.N. mission's mandate for another year, through March 2007. The current mandate is due to expire March 31, 2006.
Annan said the assessment mission, the government, civic groups and international partners ''all shared the view that it was too early for a major drawdown'' of the peacekeeping force.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa's first elected woman leader, was sworn in Jan. 16 as Liberian president, taking over from a transitional government installed in 2003.
While she has laid out ambitious recovery plans, the country has a long way to go to restructure its security services, rebuild its economy, root out corruption and regain control of its natural resources, Annan's report said.
The impoverished country of 3.2 million people suffered through 14 years of on-and-off civil war until former President Charles Taylor fled into exile in Nigeria in 2003 as rebel troops neared the capital Monrovia.
The Security Council imposed a ban on Liberian timber and diamond exports as well as an arms embargo during Taylor's final years in office after accusing him of fueling conflict in the region through an illicit trade in arms for diamonds and other natural resources.
The UN sanctions remain in place because UN experts have advised the council that the Liberian authorities are not yet able to ensure that the resources will be used solely for the benefit of the Liberian people.