Tue, Dec 28, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Peacekeepers in Congo step up military actions

FORCEFUL STANCE The UN peace force has rushed thousands of troops to front lines and issued a warning that its troops will act forcefully to protect civilians

AP , RUTSHURU, CONGO

A South African UN peacekeeper chats with three Congolese children from Kirumba Town, some 20km north of Kanyabayonga, on Saturday. UN peacekeepers have established a buffer zone to stop clashes between rival army factions that have uprooted thousands and raised tensions with Rwanda.

PHOTO: AFP

Villagers crowd around a new UN base to stare at a white helicopter lifting off over eastern Congo's mountainous terrain, where UN troops sent to secure peace are increasingly playing the role of infantrymen in central Africa's latest fighting.

Since renegade soldiers began battling government loyalists on Dec. 12, the 11,000-strong UN peace force has stepped up its own military actions -- rushing thousands of troops to front lines and warning that peace troops will act forcefully to protect Congo's people.

The schism in Congo's postwar army, pitting ex-rebels against loyalists to the Kinshasa government, threatens to draw in neighboring countries that supported the factions during the 1998-2002 war.

"We are not equipped. We don't have the manpower to deal with an army cracking," says Brigadier General Jan Isberg, the commander of peacekeepers in the North and South Kivu states, where fighting has centered.

"So, the only thing we can do is to try of course to mediate, to try to make them work together and to intervene" militarily, when all else fails, Isberg said.

The UN mission is flexing its muscles after being given a strengthened mandate while building up to 16,000 soldiers. But many Congolese accuse it of doing too little to stop the suffering of civilians still under attack by armed factions. Some 3.8 million people have died since Congo's war broke out, most through hunger and disease, according to a recent survey by the International Rescue Committee, a US-based aid agency.

In an attempt to stop a repeat -- the latest fighting has sent over 100,000 fleeing already -- UN peacekeepers have positioned themselves between the warring army factions in a 10km-wide no-go cordon.

"Any unapproved attempt by one side or the other to cross this buffer zone ... will be immediately pushed back," the UN Congo mission warned last week in an unusually strongly worded statement.

UN commanders are sending nearly 6,000 fresh troops to the Kivus, where they are establishing new bases like that at Rutshuru -- now full of sparkling white UN trucks, four-wheel-drives and a mammoth helicopter that intrigues the locals.

On Dec. 9, Pakistani UN forces broke up a camp of an armed militia, spurred by reports that militia fighters were preying on civilians and threatening comrades who wanted to disarm.

Less than a week later, UN forces fought a gunbattle with about a dozen assailants trying to sneak into the town of Bukavu.

Still, some Congolese wish the UN mission would do even more to end their suffering.

"I am happy, but only moderately. There are abuses going on even now," said Leonard Luvobo in Kanyabayonga last week, as looters sacked stores in the town as gunfire echoed in the hills beyond.

A handful of UN troops nearby didn't intervene, saying their orders were to guard monitors surveying the situation, leaving Luvobo unimpressed: "We'll see how it goes if they stay here."

In June, UN forces were targeted by rioters blaming them for inaction as renegade troops briefly took over the eastern town of Bukavu.

In Congo's capital, Kinshasa, UN soldiers opened fire on demonstrators, killing at least two.

Since then, the UN's standing has been dented again by allegations of sexual abuse by the Congo peacekeepers. The 150 allegations being investigated by the UN include rape, pedophilia and solicitation.

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