Belgium and a new row over the Congo

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The Independent Online

Belgium has been attempting to smooth over its strained relations with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but the latest effort by the Defence minister has badly backfired.

There has been an outcry over Pieter De Crem's unilateral decision to invite soldiers from the DRC army to take part in a national-day parade, which he said was a bid to "normalise" ties in the year that the former colony celebrates 50 years of independence from Belgium.

But the gaffe-prone minister is now under huge pressure to withdraw his invitation amid fresh reports of crimes perpetrated by some branches of the army in the DRC. Yesterday, Médecins sans Frontières condemned a group of soldiers who had marched into one of the aid agency's hospitals and forcibly removed four patients. Today, the UN is set to issue a report outlining crimes committed by some branches of the Congolese Army.

There has also been a national debate over whether King Albert II should have accepted an invitation to attend Kinshasa's independence celebrations – the first Belgian royal visit there for a quarter of a century.

Both invitations have exposed Belgians' deep unease in engaging with the government of Joseph Kabila, who was publicly blasted over corruption in 2008 by the then Foreign minister. The current government of Yves Leterme has sought to improve ties since that major diplomatic spat, but many tensions remain.

During a heated parliamentary debate, the Defence minister was accused of being "naive" in his invitation to Congolese soldiers. He retorted that "the reactions have been completely out of proportion... All these rumours and half-truths will do nothing to improve our relationship."

The Flemish MP Gerald Kindermans explained that many Belgians felt an "obligation" towards Congo because of the abuses perpetrated during Belgian rule under King Leopold II. "Last year, the government tried to normalise relations and we have a responsibility, given what happened in the past, not to walk away, and keep up the pressure to help them improve their human-rights record," he said.

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