Michelle Faul / The Independent & Michelle Faul / Associated Press – 2008-11-01 22:33:32
Congo Conflict Shows Flaws in UN Force
Michelle Faul / The Independent
(October 31, 2008) — The refugees watched in anger as the UN tanks headed away from the battlefield and the Tutsi rebels they were supposed to be stopping.
“Where are they going? They’re supposed to protect us!” shouted Jean-Paul Maombi, a 31-year-old nurse who had fled his village because of the violence. Nearby, young men hurled rocks at the UN troops.
The quick unraveling of the world’s largest UN peacekeeping effort has come as no surprise to the mission’s critics, who complain the force was unprepared for its main task — protecting civilians from the war.
Growing numbers of civilians are furious at the U.N’s failure to keep them safe. Angry Congolese have pelted rocks at all four UN compounds in the provincial capital of Goma. One such attack on the disputed road north of the city critically wounded an Indian officer.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday that peacekeeping troops in Congo are “doing everything possible to protect civilians and fulfill their mandate in untenable circumstances.”
Fewer than 6,000 of the mission’s 17,000 troops are deployed in North Kivu, the site of the current fighting, because unrest in other provinces has required their presence elsewhere, the UN says. By comparison, rebel leader Laurent Nkunda commands about 10,000 fighters.
Alan Doss, the top UN envoy in Congo, said the UN troops have performed “really with great distinction,” but are stretched to the limit and need reinforcements quickly.
The inability to protect civilians is particularly frustrating for the UN mission in Congo, which got a strong mandate, including the power to use force, in part because of lessons learned in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and other regions of Congo, where failure to prevent civilian killings became a mark of shame.
The explosion of violence in eastern Congo has shown the mission to be lacking more than manpower, however. It has been ill-equipped to deal with the guerrilla tactics of rebels who overwhelm the conventionally trained peacekeepers with hit-and-run attacks by small groups of fighters who hide among civilians in Congo’s dense tropical forests.
The mission is comprised mostly of troops from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uruguay and South Africa. Few speak the region’s languages: the French of its Belgian colonizers, the Kiswahili that is the lingua franca in east and central Africa, or the local tongues of Kinyarwanda or Lingala.
“It’s not just the language skills — it’s about the conflict preparedness, the ability to understand the political situation” said Alex Vines, director of the Africa program at the Chatham House think tank in London.
Perhaps most fundamental is the complexity of the mandate handed to the force, known by the French acronym MONUC. The peacekeepers have been charged with simultaneously protecting civilians, disarming rebel fighters and policing buffer zones separating the insurgents from government troops.
“I think the sense is that they’ve really been hung out to dry,” said Erin Weir, the peacekeeping advocate in Goma for Washington-based Refugees International. “The UN Security Council handed MONUC an exceptionally complex set of tasks to accomplish, but never came through with the resources or the political support to get the job done.”
The mission also has been charged with supporting a ragtag Congolese force of 30,000 soldiers cobbled together from a defeated national army and several of the rebel groups who vanquished it in 1996.
“Our mandate tells us to support an army that doesn’t exit,” one UN official told The Associated Press recently, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. “There is no coherent army.”
A tank from the Congolese army careened into a wave of refugees fleeing fighting near Goma this week, killing three teenagers just down the road from a camp of Indian peacekeepers.
Unaware of the accident, the peacekeepers took no action as thousands of refugees streamed down the road past their base.
“Where are the ‘Blue Helmets?”‘ the refugees demanded to know, referring to the peacekeepers’ distinctive headgear.
When the UN troops learned of the accident from AP reporters at the scene and drove with them to investigate, they were stoned by angry civilians and forced to turn back before they reached the hastily dug graves of the victims.
Even before the latest eruption of violence, the peacekeepers’ credibility was damaged by accusations of sexual abuse of local women, illegal gold trading and corruption.
Fueling the mission’s problems, Congolese soldiers have tried to manipulate the UN force into attacking Nkunda’s rebels by taking up positions near the peacekeepers’ camps, then firing rockets, mortars and bombs at the rebels before beating a hasty retreat — leaving the peacekeepers to face the insurgents’ counterattack.
All this in a country nearly a quarter the size of the United States that is struggling to recover from a devastating civil conflict that ousted longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 and was followed by wars that drew in eight other African nations.
The UN renewed the Congo mission’s mandate and expanded it in December 2007, empowering the peacekeepers to use force to disarm Nkunda’s fighters, but saying they must give priority to protecting civilians.
In January, the mission was asked under a regional peace deal to police buffer zones to separate the Congo army from areas controlled by Nkunda’s Tutsi rebels.
But they were also charged to work alongside the Congolese army to disarm Rwandan Hutu militiamen who fled to Congo after perpetrating the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed half a million Tutsis. Complicating matters, these same militiamen had sometimes been used as irregular reinforcements in Congo’s army, whose soldiers include many Hutus.
That mandate has caused Rwanda, Nkunda and at least one non-government organization to accuse the peacekeepers of aiding and abetting those behind the Rwandan genocide.
Nkunda said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press Thursday that he wants direct talks with the government to discuss security in the region, as well as his objections to a $5 billion deal that gives China access to the country’s vast mineral riches in exchange for a railway and highway.
Demand for minerals has fueled Congo’s conflicts for years, and experts say little has changed since a UN investigation concluded in 2001 that the fighting has been mainly about “access, control and trade” of five key resources: diamonds, copper, cobalt, gold and coltan, which is used in cell phones and laptops.
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‘Peacekeepers Attack Rebels’: Civilians, Troops Retreat from Congo Rebels
Michelle Faul / Associated Press
GOMA, Congo (October 28, 2008) — Peacekeepers attacked rebels in eastern Congo with helicopter gunships Monday while crowds of protesters threw rocks outside four UN compounds, venting outrage at what they said was a failure to protect them from advancing rebel forces.
UN spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg said the peacekeepers fired Monday at rebel forces surging on Kibumba, about 28 miles north of the provincial capital of Goma.
In December, UN officials also used helicopters to repel the rebels, killing hundreds under their mandate to protect civilians in the vast Central African country that has been ravaged by years of dictatorship and civil war.
Rebel leader Gen. Laurent Nkunda has threatened to take Goma in defiance of calls from the UN Security Council for him to respect a UN-brokered January cease-fire.
In an interview with the Associated Press, rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said Monday that fighters were within 7 miles of Goma. Residents of Katindo, a neighborhood 3 miles from downtown Goma, told the Associated Press they heard bombs exploding late Monday afternoon.
Tens of thousands of civilians have abandoned their homes. Women and children lay down on roadsides made muddy by tropical downpours, stretching out to spend the night. Some had mats or plastic sheets; others simply dropped, exhausted, to the ground.
Also Monday, the UN spokeswoman said that the commander of the embattled Congo peacekeeping force had resigned.
People in eastern Congo are furious that the UN peacekeeping mission has been unable to protect them from a rebel force that says it is fighting to protect ethnic Tutsis. Residents opposed to rebels, including Hutus and those who lived in camps after fleeing earlier conflicts, feel particularly threatened.
The crowds shattered windows and damaged cars at the main UN office, van den Wildenberg said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of soldiers pulled back from the front just 25 miles north of the city in tanks, jeeps, trucks and on foot in what appeared to be a major retreat.
The civilians and soldiers pushed south from a major army base seized by the rebels and surged toward the provincial capital of Goma.
As the crowds came within reach of the city, soldiers blocked access to the northern entrance of Goma, apparently fearing that rebels could be trying to infiltrate with the displaced civilians.
Inside Goma, terrified and angry civilians converged on UN offices, all of which are located within the compact city. One witness, Emmanuel Kihombo, said a peacekeeper fired directly into the crowd at one compound and shot a man in the stomach.
Kihombo, who is unemployed, said the protesters also hurled stones at about 20 Tutsi students, adding that they all managed to run away.
It was an indication of dangerously increasing anti-Tutsi sentiment fueled by the success of Nkunda’s rebels, who say they are fighting to protect minority Tutsis from a Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping to perpetrate the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Half a million Tutsis were slaughtered.
Congo’s government has accused the Tutsi-led government that won power in Rwanda after the genocide of sending troops to support Nkunda – a charge Rwanda denies and the UN says is unfounded.
UN officials said Nkunda’s fighters blatantly launched several rockets at two UN armored cars on Sunday. A spokesman for Nkunda denied responsibility for the attack, which injured several UN soldiers and damaged the cars.
Van den Wildenberg, the UN spokeswoman, said there was no doubt the attack came from Nkunda’s rebels. She said the peacekeepers were trying to get to thousands of people still trapped behind the front line around Rumangabo, the strategic army camp north of Goma.
Nkunda’s rebels overran the camp early Sunday and retained it – despite soldiers pounding the area with heavy artillery
The rebels also have seized the headquarters of Virunga National Park, home to 200 of the world’s 700 mountain gorillas, which are considered critically endangered. The ragtag Congolese army, cobbled together of defeated army troops and several rebel and militia groups after back-to-back wars from 1997-2003, is disjointed, undisciplined, demoralized and poorly paid, with the lowest-ranking troopers getting little more than $20 a month.
Nkunda is believed to command about 5,500 highly trained and disciplined fighters.
© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.
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