MONROVIA (Reuters) - Liberia sent about 50 troops to Mali on Thursday to join the U.N. peacekeeping mission, a first for the West African nation since its 14-year civil war ended a decade ago.
The 12,000-strong U.N. force, known as MINUSMA, will take over peacekeeping duties next month from an African regional mission deployed after France launched an offensive in January to drive Islamist rebels from northern Mali.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, joint winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, urged the soldiers to be professional and disciplined during their mission.
"You are the pride of Liberia," Sirleaf told the troops at a ceremony in the capital, Monrovia.
The peacekeeping deployment is only the second in Liberia's history, after it sent peacekeepers to Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1960s.
The Mali mission is the first since it rebuilt its army from scratch after the civil war, which was characterized by the use of child soldiers by rival warlords and rampant human rights abuses.
Peacekeepers from the West African regional bloc ECOWAS played an important role in returning war-torn Liberia to stability.
"We are going to Mali to help our friends. They helped us during our war. If we are in the position to help, we need to do so," said Emmanuel Minarth, an officer with the contingent.
Former President Charles Taylor, who led Liberia for most of the civil war years, was jailed for 50 years by the International Criminal Court in May last year for helping the RUF rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone commit what the court called some of the worst war crimes in history.
(Reporting by Alphonso Toweh; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Angus MacSwan)