Britain’s Africa minister said yesterday that the UK could send troops to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) if a fragile ceasefire between rebel fighters and the army fails.
Mark Malloch-Brown said Britain has a contingency plan to deploy forces to bolster the efforts of UN peacekeepers if violence escalates.
The foreign ministers of France and Britain flew into the DRC yesterday on an EU mission to try to secure peace in the east and help tens of thousands of civilians fleeing the conflict.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband were due to meet Congolese President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa and travel to the eastern city of Goma, threatened by an offensive by Tutsi rebels last week.
The attacks by fighters loyal to rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda and subsequent killings and looting by Congolese army troops have driven thousands of families from their homes in North Kivu Province on the border with Rwanda.
Fearing more violence, the displaced civilians are seeking shelter, water and food in what aid workers are calling a catastrophic humanitarian situation.
Three days ago, Nkunda declared a ceasefire after his rebels fought to the gates of Goma, forcing back Congo’s army and UN peacekeepers. UN officials have said the truce is fragile.
Kouchner, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, and Miliband are due to look at the possibility of an EU humanitarian airlift into North Kivu that could be protected by EU troops on the ground.
The two European ministers will later travel from the DRC to neighboring Rwanda for talks with Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
The DRC and Rwanda have accused each other of backing rebel groups involved in the eastern Congo violence.
At talks in Kinshasa and Kigali, EU Development and Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel obtained the agreement of Kabila and Kagame on Friday to meet at a summit to discuss the conflict.
The UN, EU and the US have been urgently lobbying the two leaders to make a lasting peace deal that will end any support for insurgent groups and pacify the violence-plagued region.
The UN said Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, who is African Union (AU) chairman, and AU Commission chief Jean Ping had proposed in telephone talks with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that a regional summit should be held over the Congo conflict.
Nkunda, who says he is fighting to defend the Tutsi minority in Congo’s east, abandoned a January peace deal and has called for a neutral mediator to negotiate.
An estimated 1 million people have been forced from their homes in North Kivu by two years of violence that has persisted despite the end of a 1998 to 2003 war in the vast former Belgian colony, which is rich in copper, cobalt, gold and diamonds.
The world’s largest UN peacekeeping force, 17,000-strong, is deployed in the DRC, but has been badly stretched by rebel and militia violence on several fronts and was not able to halt Nkunda’s rapid advance on Goma.
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