Congo closer to getting UN peacekeepers

France, South Africa, Pakistan and Nigeria have expressed interest in possible troop contributions for an international force to help quell the bloodletting in north-east Congo, a UN peacekeeping chief said yesterday.

Canada and Britain are also considering lending troops, Jean-Marie Guehenno, the UN undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, said after meeting the Congo President, Joseph Kabila, in the capital, Kinshasa. The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, has appealed for a multinational armed force for Bunia, the capital of north-east Congo's Ituri province.

Heavily armed fighters of two rival ethnic groups battled with machetes, mortars and assault rifles in the streets of Bunia this month, killing more than 300 and sending thousands fleeing to UN compounds for safety.

The United Nations is investigating reports of cannibalism and other atrocities. The UN estimates the Ituri conflict has killed 50,000 and displaced another 500,000 since 1998. Congo's war overall is estimated by aid groups to have killed 3.3 million, most through famine and disease.

In Ituri province, Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and other combatants in the war are accused of using ethnic groups as proxies in their own rivalries. Congo's government and rebels signed a power-sharing deal in December. Five foreign African armies that had backed rival government and rebel sides have withdrawn under a series of peace deals.

"It's clear that the political process is progressing ... and the international community is ready to engage to support the efforts of the Congolese," Mr Guehenno said.