Where the UN Hesitated to Tread, America and Angola Dared to Step In

US special envoy is in Africa this week to help bolster region's stability after yet another coup.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The overthrow of the democratically elected government in Congo Republic earlier this month has become a test case for the United Nations and Secretary-General Kofi Annan, one that many say the world body has failed.

"This is just another step in the marginalization of the UN in the region," says Barnett Rubin, director of the center for preventive action for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "There was a time when a peacekeeping operation made sense in Congo-Brazzaville. But the Security Council, led by the US, blocked it. UN credibility has been greatly reduced in the region."

Stepping in where the UN feared to tread was Angola.

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Earlier this month, Angola sent about 3,500 troops backed by tanks and fighter planes into Congo to help Gen. Denis Sassou Nguesso, Congo's once and future military ruler, in his successful bid to topple President Pascal Lissouba.

General Sassou Nguesso previously ruled from 1979 to 1991, when a wave of democratic sentiment then sweeping Africa led to Mr. Lissouba's election.

The Angolan intervention, coming just months after it aided another successful coup in the other Congo, was seen as a bid to choke off support for UNITA, Angola's former rebel movement.

America's ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson, who has called Angola "the key to peace" in the region, met with Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos on Congo this week. The visit was one of several Mr. Richardson made in a US effort to help stabilize the region.

"Ambassador Richardson pressed the issue of foreign troops in Congo-Brazzaville," says Julie Reside, press officer for Africa with the State Department.

"He stressed a departure date of Nov. 15, and the Angolan government said they would leave as soon as possible."

Ms. Reside said the US has not issued any ultimatum should the Angolans fail to meet the deadline, although it's possible aid would be cut off.

The leaders of the former Zaire (renamed Congo after President Laurent Kabila overthrew long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in May), Angola, Gabon, and Sassou-Nguesso met in Luanda, Angola's capital, Oct. 27 to cement stability. The US has called this summit a good initiative, Reside says.

Foreign troops and mercenaries still occupy the small country, and the humanitarian situation is reported to be grave.

Yet since the conflict erupted four months ago between Sassou-Nguesso's Cobra militia and government troops, the UN has failed to take the lead in a region beset by conflict.

Ironically, the fighting in the Congo Republic erupted shortly after the Organization of African Unity met in Harare, Zimbabwe, to state that it would no longer tolerate the overthrow of democratically elected governments by force.

"This was the first test for the OAU, and they and the UN have failed to protect a fragile democracy," says Salih Booker, a senior fellow for Africa for the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "You had a civilian-elected government with a weak national army toppled by a former head of state who had his own militia and help from foreign governments."

Mr. Annan began pressing the Security Council to establish a UN presence in the Congo four months ago.

For its part, the Security Council had set three conditions for the establishment of such a force: adherence to a cease-fire, agreement to international control of the Brazzaville airport, and commitment by the parties to a negotiated settlement. None of these conditions were met.

In a report to the Council last week, Annan said he will draw up plans for a suitable UN presence to protect humanitarian aid and provide electoral assistance.

"Continued conflict in the Republic of the Congo, especially if the involvement of foreign forces persists, would represent a clear threat to regional peace and security," says Annan.

"The United Nations system has a duty to take the lead in efforts to relieve the suffering of the people."

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