Canada attempts to regain peace image

Making amends for the Somalia mess is not the only motive for sending soldiers to Africa again, writes Hugh Winsor
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The Independent Online
Ottawa -The Canadian government, anxious to regain the initiative in United Nations peace-keeping operations and to take advantage of its experience in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, has offered to take the lead role in organising a small military force to act as a disaster- assistance response team in eastern Zaire.

The Canadian forces are prepared to send a lightly armed mobile unit of French-speaking officers with previous experience of UN peace-keeping operations in Rwanda immediately as a vanguard unit for a larger UN force.

The Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, contacted 15 world leaders over the weekend, urging support for such a force. "Prime Minister Chretien decided that the urgency of the situation required some action," a spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Department said yesterday.

The Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy, called off a visit to Cairo for a Middle East economic conference in order to work full-time on the force.

The Canadian motivation is a mixture of altruism and a desire to refurbish a reputation for UN peace-keeping that was stained by several incidents in Somalia. In one case, a group of Canadian soldiers tortured and beat to death a 16-year-old Somali youth caught attempting to steal from the Canadian compound. There were also two questionable shooting incidents in which Somalis were killed.

Canada's record on UN peace-keeping goes back to the aftermath of the Suez Crisis in 1956. Lester Pearson, then Secretary of State for External Affairs and later Prime Minister, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for initiating the UN peace-force concept.

That Canadian forces operate in both French and English is seen as an advantage in this part of Africa. Also, Canadian generals commanded the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (Unamir) force during the upheaval in 1994. The current initiative is also related to frustrations left from that period when Canadian commanders wanted to increase the Unamir force and intervene to stop the killings. Instead, the Security Council reduced the Unamir force and UN headquarters ordered the peace- keepers not to intervene.

Apart from political motivations, the Canadian government has also come under pressure from several of the Canadian-based humanitarian agencies which played key roles in the Zairean refugee camps before they were forced to flee by the current fighting.

Canadian missionary organisations, especially the Roman Catholic White Fathers, have been active in the area, founding a university in Rwanda, for instance. They have links with both the refugees and the current leadership in Rwanda and Burundi.

There is also a desire to back up the work of Raymond Chretien, the Prime Minister's nephew, who has been designated the special envoy of the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and who is now in Kinshasa.

One of the leaders of the Canadian initiative is Robert Fowler, the Canadian representative at the United Nations, who was Deputy Minister of National Defence when the Canadians headed the Unamir and who was a teacher in Rwanda before he joined the foreign service.

Canada believes that by taking the initiative it can overcome obstacles that have brought Franco-Spanish proposals to a standstill. In particular, there is resistance to French participation, because the Rwandan government, led by the Rwandese Patriotic Front, resents the French alliance with the former Hutu government. It was the creation of Zone Turquoise in the south-west sector of Rwanda two years ago, protected by French forces, which permitted leaders of the Interahamwe militia responsible for the massacre of Tutus to escape to Zaire.

Canada's initial group would be an advance team of 180 to 200 men specialising in communications, a mobile field hospital and a water-purification system. Unconfirmed reports said that Canada was prepared to commit up to 1,500 troops but was counting on help from other Western countries, especially the United States which has the airlift capacity to get the Canadians with their equipment and their Grizzlies - lightly armoured wheeled scout cars - to Goma quickly. The Canadian contingent to Unamir created an extensive micro- wave communications network in Rwanda which could be reactivated and extended into Zaire.