A tougher UN starts taming Congo

Weapons are flowing into disarmament centers, thanks to a United Nations force led by troops from Pakistan.

Nobody here is taking anything for granted. After more than 10 years of ethnic clashes, many false dawns, and 5 million war-related deaths, the Congolese know to be wary.

But suddenly, there is a spring in the step of peacekeepers in Congo, the troubled nation in the heart of Africa.

The main Hutu rebel group, seen by many as the biggest obstacle to progress in this region, recently announced its intention to give up a decade-long fight against neighboring Rwanda.

And the United Nations itself - with a highly effective Pakistani contingent at the forefront - has been scoring major military successes against renegade militias. As weapons begin to flow into disarmament camps, locals and officials alike are cautiously optimistic that the country could be on the brink of a historic opportunity for peace in Central Africa.

The Pakistani peacekeepers are an uncompromising bunch. "They don't ask questions - they just shoot," quips one UN staffer, who asked not to be named. That may sound alarming, but in a country where militias have for years raped, looted, and killed with impunity, the approach is welcomed by many.

Until the Pakistanis arrived six months ago, peacekeepers here had been plagued by repeated accusations of timidity. Confidence in the mission - which has been in place for more than five years and is the world's largest (with 16,000 troops) and most expensive - was near an all-time low.

But one reason for the fresh optimism is Maj. Mohammed Younis, a short, bustling man with piercing eyes. Major Younis, the Pakistani sector commander of Walungu - a remote eastern town bordering a militia-infested forest - says his job is challenging, even by Congo's standards.

"The miscreants emerge from the center of the forest at night, and prey on the civilian population, raping them and kidnapping for ransom," he says, as we accompany him and his men on patrol through viscous mud and banana groves. "The terrain is really very difficult - these bushes provide easy cover for the miscreants, and they know the lay of the land so well." Still, as his men have adapted to the conditions, they have managed gradually to reduce the number of attacks against civilians.

"At its peak, kidnappings reached five or six per week in this area. In the last six weeks, there have been 10 attempts - and seven were thwarted," he adds. While it was impossible to confirm aggregate numbers, civilians interviewed corroborate the downward trend.

This picture is mirrored across most provinces of eastern Congo. Veronique, a Congolese woman working in Bukavu for a charity called the Centre for Development and Integrity, says the population has confidence in the Pakistani peacekeepers. "They even provide security escorts from here to the more troubled areas like Walungu. They do their work very well," she enthuses.

Several hundred miles to the north, a six-hour battle by peacekeepers from Pakistan and India, involving coordinated strikes from the ground and air on a militia hotbed, resulted in the death of 60 fighters a couple of months ago. Since then, the flow of weapons into disarmament centers has turned from an intermittent trickle into a steady stream.

The Pakistani troops, now totaling 2,500, are well-equipped. Each carries an automatic light machine gun. For nocturnal operations, night-vision goggles, together with 60mm illuminating flares, are standard. Over the past six weeks, Congolese troops have started to deploy in the east as part of a 1999 UN-brokered transition toward peace. Increasing cooperation between them and the UN peacekeepers, which include joint patrols, is encouraging to Younis.

"Now we have confidence in the Army here," he says. "Before, we did not."

While recent developments have created a more optimistic atmosphere, however, significant problems persist. The leader of the main Hutu rebel group - drawn from the militia responsible for Rwanda's 1994 genocide, which has been exiled in Congo ever since - recently declared his wish for a peaceful return to Rwanda. Arriving in Congo's capital, Kinshasa, several days ago from his home in Europe, Ignace Murwanashyaka was due to come to the east almost immediately. But the UN is still waiting for him.

A key sticking point is that Rwanda remains determined to bring all those guilty of perpetrating genocide in 1994 to justice. Many of the Hutu exiles, as a result, have little interest in returning to Rwanda - and a new hard-line group seems to be evolving.

"We have seen the emergence of an organization calling itself the Rastas in recent months," says Sylvie Van Wildenberg, a UN spokesperson. Officials don't know the exact composition of this group, but renegade Hutu elements are involved.

"It will take some time yet [to resolve this situation]," acknowledges Younis. "But we are determined to help bring security to the people here."

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