UN ready to back French-led force to halt Congo carnage

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The Independent Online

A French-led force of peace-keepers hoping to halt killings in the Democratic Republic of Congo is expected to receive United Nations approval today. The 1,000-strong battalion, including some British troops, could be deployed as early as next week.

But in Bunia, the capital of Ituri province, fears were growing of a fresh onslaught. A fierce battle for the town two weeks ago saw the ethnic Lendu population expelled by militia from the rival Hema group. Now the Lendu may be preparing a counter-attack.

"Some of their positions are only five kilometres from here. They are regrouping for another attack," said an official in the razor-wire protected UN compound. "We think it's not a matter of if, but when."

Red Cross workers are still burying corpses from the latest attack, sparked by a Ugandan withdrawal from the town on 7 May. Tribal militiamen armed with, guns, spears and machetes bludgeoned or shot to death more than 400 people. Some mutilated bodies bore evidence of cannibalism.

Yesterday, Bunia was calm but tense. A jeep with a machine-gun mounted on the back sped past mostly closed shops. Among the few businesses open was a video theatre showing a film called Killer Instinct.

Thousands of terrified civilians huddled under plastic shelters in the UN compound, manned by a deployment of about 700 peace-keepers, the majority of whom are Uruguayan. During the massacres, the troops obeyed orders to remain at the base.

If there is quiet, it is only because the Lendu have fled. But there is a steady drip of violence - isolated shootings by night, some looting by day and the rape of girls as young as 10. Their uniformed male schoolmates roam the half-deserted streets, swinging sub-machine guns they are barely big enough to handle.

The bandaged victims of the latest massacres stand against the walls of a coffee warehouse used as a temporary hospital. One woman awaiting evacuation had part of her brain exposed. Kabagambe Lokana, 25, a fisherman, sat near by, a ring of machete wounds around his head. He only survived the attack by the Hema after being left for dead, he said. His father, brothers and uncles were killed and he said that he had little confidence in the French-led mission.

"I am pessimistic. People have been coming here, white and black, from all over the world, but they never bring peace," he said.

There has been steady criticism of the under-resourced DRC UN mission. "It is a long, bad story", said François Grignon of the International Crisis Group at Bunia airport. He shouted to be heard as a cargo plane full of refugees fired its engine for take-off .

But the UN says that it is patrolling an area bigger than Sierra Leone or Kosovo, peace-keeping missions that are the responsibility of tens of thousands of troops.

Lt-Col Daniel Vollon said: "We are already exceeding our mandate here.

"Every day I receive new tasks from New York but I cannot perform miracles. My people are doing their best under very difficult circumstances."

The French resolution in the UN Security Council has met resistance from Uganda and Rwanda, which sparked the DRC war in 1998. Each has supported rival factions in Ituri.

If the resolution is passed, the multinational force would be deployed until 1 September. After that, a 1,500-strong Bangladesh-led battalion is expected to police the DRC.

But to prevent further massacres, the question now is the strength of the mandate. France's ambassador to the UN, Jean-Marc de la Sablière, wants his men to have the right to open fire to protect endangered civilians.

Any strengthened mission would also have to examine the possibility of intervening in disputes outside the city in isolated villages that are difficult to reach. M. Grignon said: "Look, this town is bloody empty. The force needs to be able to stop massacres taking place in the rural areas."

Atrocities such as the massacre at Nyakunde village last year, which left 1,200 dead, could be taking place. But for now, nobody knows because the area is inaccessible to UN troops and aid agencies.

Meanwhile in Bunia, civilians, aid workers and UN troops are praying for relief from the uncertainty - and fast.