British troops may protect aid in Congo

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The Independent Online

Contingency plans have been drawn up to send British troops to the Congo to try to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe if the security situation continues to deteriorate.

Up to 700 soldiers from the "Spearhead Battalion", 4 Rifles, along with support staff, could be dispatched as part of a European Union force if necessary. Senior Whitehall officials said another mission by British troops, with the country already fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will be only a last resort. But a limited, short-term deployment to ensure aid gets to the 250,000 refugees fleeing the fighting may be sent if other avenues fail.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "We have not received any request for help but we are, of course, looking at options."

The Foreign Office minister, Lord Malloch-Brown, said the UK was the "stand-by country" to help form a EU intervention force if the current ceasefire ended and the United Nations forces (Monuc) in the country could not cope. "If everything else fails, we cannot stand back and watch violence erupt," he said.

Gordon Brown said the international community could "not allow Congo to become another Rwanda", where more than 800,000 people were killed in 1994, and in Washington the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, backed sending EU reinforcements. But the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who travelled to the Congo with his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, said the UN force of 850 in Goma, where fighting has erupted, should be reinforced by some of the 16,000 peacekeepers deployed in other parts of the country.