By Alphonso Toweh
MONROVIA (Reuters) - A U.N. peacekeeping mission that was sent to Liberia in 2003 to restore order after two brutal civil wars withdrew on Thursday, beginning a new phase of self-reliance for the impoverished West African country.
Liberia has relied heavily on the mission of 15,000 U.N. troops, known as UNMIL, which had been winding down for several months before control was officially handed over to domestic forces on Thursday.
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President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told Reuters much had been done to prepare for the transition, but that more was still needed.
"The constraints of resources have not enabled us to go as far as we would have wanted in terms of security training, logistics, and support for our security forces," Sirleaf said.
The government has said that new barracks have been built across the country to increase security outside the capital.
As of Friday, 1,240 U.N. military and 606 police personnel will remain on the ground, but will be there only in case of emergency.
Liberia has slowly regained its political standing following the two civil wars that spanned 14 years, by restoring order and holding peaceful democratic elections. In June, Sirleaf was elected to head the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Its economy has taken a big hit from a slump in commodities prices since 2014, however, and from the Ebola epidemic. Last year, GDP grew just 0.3 percent.
Security concerns persist in the wider region too. A wave of high-profile attacks claimed by Al Qaeda in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast has put all of West Africa on guard over the past year.
Sirleaf said that West African states need more help from wealthy countries to defend themselves against terrorism.
"The resources to fight are insufficient on the basis of ECOWAS’ own capacities," Sirleaf said. "There is no doubt that we need international assistance."
She added that ECOWAS, which comprises 15 states, has made some progress in intelligence sharing and holds regular meetings to discuss counter-terrorism strategy in face of the ongoing threat.
As for its domestic policing, the UNMIL departure is symbolic for many who have grown used to its presence over the past 13 years. Some said that they would miss the U.N. forces, as a dwindling number of jeeps drove out of the military base in Monrovia.
"This is a testing time for our security forces. Their performance after UNMIL will indicate to the world that Liberia can manage its affairs," said Oretha Kieade, a student at the University of Liberia.
But "it is time for UNMIL to leave," he added.
(Additioinal reporting by James Harding Giahyue, writing by Nellie Peyton, editing by Edward McAllister and Catherine Evans)