Peacekeepers tested in Congo

The European Union said yesterday that it may send troops into the eastern part of the country.

Sporadic fighting and insecurity in eastern Congo threatens to derail the fragile peace process here, nearly one year after a transitional government was established.

Clashes between dissident Congolese forces and the national Army last week in Bukavu, a commercial center along the shores of Lake Kivu, raise the possibility of another brutal conflict exploding in the region. As well, foreign fighters from neighboring Rwanda threaten to destabilize the country, and United Nations peacekeepers, deployed here four years ago, have shown little ability to stop the fighting. Now the European Union is considering sending in troops.

The ongoing violence underscores the challenge of establishing stability in a country with a history of conflict, even as a transitional government in Kinshasa, some 900 miles away, moves toward elections next year.

"The leaders in Kinshasa have no control over the armed wings of their parties, and therefore, there is no accountability in the field," says Jean Marie Gasana, an analyst for the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria in a telephone interview. "If the peace agreement is to be successful, there must be strong government leadership to carry it out."

In July 2002 Congo and Rwanda signed a peace agreement in Pretoria, South Africa, calling for the removal from Congo of Rwandan government troops, who had been fighting militias involved in Rwanda's 1994 genocide. The agreement also called for the disarmament and repatriation of the Rwandan Hutu rebels, or Interahamwe, who participated in the genocide.

But aid groups working in villages along the frontier between Congo and Rwanda say the Interahamwe ("those who fight together" in the Rwandan language Kinyarwanda) are killing, raping, and looting civilians.

Movement toward peace and stability in Congo is further hampered by the country's ruined government institutions, which resulted from the 32-year despotic rule of Mobutu Sese Seko.

Congo is the third-largest nation in Africa, and establishing security among its 51 million people from 200 ethnic groups spread across an expanse of 905,000 square miles is a daunting task.

The UN Security Council has deployed 10,800 armed peacekeeping troops, including 3,500 who were dispatched to South Kivu last March, and invested $608 million in the mission last year alone, making it the most expensive UN peacekeeping operation in the world.

On Sunday, two UN peacekeepers were killed during an ambush, and over the past few days the UN has evacuated part of its staff to neighboring countries.

Francois Mutura, a Protestant pastor, who recently moved 40 miles to Bukavu from his village in Nyamalege after Interahamwe rebels torched his house to ashes, said that UN peacekeepers, known as MONUC, are making little difference.

"I have no confidence in MONUC," Mr. Mutura said through an interpreter. "We have no security."

Yesterday, Belgium's foreign minister announced that the EU may send in troops. The deployment would mark the second emergency deployment by the EU, following last year's French-led force of 1,850 troops to the city of Bunia.

British Royal Marine Col. Paul Jobbins, a UN commander in Bukavu, says that the Interahamwe does not have the means to militarily challenge MONUC, but he is concerned about those Hutu rebels who are coerced not to surrender.

"Some are pressured by their commanders to continue fighting, while others are too frightened to return to Rwanda because they may face charges of human rights violations from the genocide," Colonel Jobbins says. "They're like a fox backed into a corner, who will take drastic action."

UN peacekeeping forces have disarmed and repatriated 6,000 former Rwandan combatants, according to MONUC, but they estimate 10,000 Rwandan fighters remain in country.

The war in Congo erupted in 1998 after the late President Laurent Kabila attempted to expel Rwandan troops who helped him topple Mr. Mobutu the previous year, igniting a multinational conflict involving at least seven African armies.

Rwanda withdrew an estimated 20,000 soldiers under the 2002 Pretoria accord, but Rwandan President Paul Kagame pledged to redeploy troops last month following an alleged Interahamwe attack on a village in northwest Rwanda on April 8.

Herbert Weiss, a Congo expert at the Woodrow Wilson Institute in Washington, says that solving the Interahamwe problem is the key to regional security.

"I have been of the view, for several years, that getting the Interahamwe out of [Congo] is absolutely essential for peace," Weiss said in an e-mail message.

But Congolese National Army Capt. Joseppe Diemo says that the Rwandan Hutu rebels continue to destabilize the region. "They're attacking [Congo] villages to loot goods to take back to their positions, and then moving into Rwanda to fight," Diemo said through an interpreter. "They're causing insecurity on both sides of the border."

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