British troops may go to Congo after UN uncovers massacre

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Britain is preparing to join an emergency peace-keeping force being sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo to end a fresh outbreak of bloodshed in the war-torn African nation.

A small United Nations force in north-eastern Congo has been watching helplessly as rival factions, backed by the neighbouring states of Uganda and Rwanda, engage in a bloody civil war. Yesterday a UN official said 280 bodies had been discovered in the town of Bunia, which would be the headquarters of any new peace-keeping venture.

Some of the bodies were mutilated and might have been cannibalised, he added, supporting statements by church leaders and local people that cannibalism took place during the fighting. Yesterday some of the tribal fighters patrolling the streets of Bunia had human organs hanging from their assault rifles.

Tony Blair confirmed yesterday that Britain had been asked to contribute to a French-led operation being planned for the mineral-rich Ituri region of Congo. The deployment of soldiers has not been ruled out but Britain is more likely to offer logistical or medical support. A government source told The Independent last night: "We want to help; that's not in question. What is not decided is exactly what sort of support we can offer."

A team of French officers is in the remote region to assess the mission but the Defence Ministry in Paris has already said that the deployment of French forces would be "very complex", requiring hundreds of flights by heavy cargo planes. The dangers of intervention can scarcely be exaggerated in a country where it is estimated that at least two million people, perhaps twice as many, have been killed since the former Mobutu regime began losing its grip in the mid-1990s.

Two years ago, however, the Prime Minister called the state of Africa "a scar on the conscience of the world", and told the Labour Party conference: "It [the international community] could, with our help, sort out the blight that is the continuing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where three million people have died through war or famine in the last decade."

The vast central African country, already bankrupted by Mobutu, has been torn apart by ethnic warfare and the interference of its neighbours. At one stage six African nations had troops in Congo, plundering the country's resources of diamonds, gold and oil when they were not lending support to rival factions. Laurent Kabila, Mobutu's successor, was assassinated in 2001, after which his son Joseph took over.

President Kabila is now nominally in charge of an interim government that will hold elections in two years under a peace deal signed in South Africa at the end of last year. But the agreement has caused as many problems as it has solved: any British personnel arriving in Congo will find that the government in Kinshasa is being accused by rebel groups of failing to stick to the peace timetable and sending troops into areas under their control.

In Ituri, trouble began after the withdrawal of Rwandan troops allowed ethnic hatreds between the two local tribes, the Lendu and the Hema, to surface. Aid agencies and human rights groups have warned of potential genocide. Gareth Evans, the former Australian foreign minister who now heads the International Crisis Group, said this week that Lendu and Hema might become names "as indelibly inscribed on our collective conscience as Tutsi and Hutu" - the two groups whose enmity led to the slaughter of over a million people in Rwanda nine years ago.

Last year the UN Security Council proposed expanding the Monuc peace-keeping force, mainly drawn from South American and African countries, from 5,500 to 8,700 troops, and mandating it "to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence". But in practice Monuc has only 3,800 troops and its 700-strong force in Bunia is hard-pressed to even maintain its own safety. Last weekend the mutilated bodies of two peace-keepers who disappeared a few days earlier were found in shallow graves near the town.

Britain has privately complained to the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, about the calibre of the UN team trying to keep the peace in the region. One British source described it last night as "shambolic". In the Commons yesterday, Tony Blair was careful to avoid committing British troops to Congo, saying: "There is a UN force being put together now. I understand France is going to make a considerable contribution to that. We are seeing, given all our other engagements, what support we can give."

Mr Blair added: "It is going to be very important to make sure that force is properly led and properly supported, because otherwise we will revisit the terrors of the Congo of a decade or so ago. We are doing everything we can to avoid that situation."

Clare Short, the former secretary of state for international development, said yesterday that the UN operation in Congo had been "less effective than it could have been". She said: "Instead of absolutely focusing on getting a government that brings together the three factions that were fighting - and then we can start to build a national army and help people of the Congo to start to develop the resources of their country - it has been rather partial, weak and muddled."

The Government denies that the plight of central Africa has slipped down its list of foreign priorities following crises in Afghanistan and Iraq. It points to the joint visit of Mr Straw and Hubert Védrine, his French counterpart, to the region last year. At the time, Mr Straw said: "My intention is to go back. You can assume I will return to the Congo problem."