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UN chief backing EU force for DR Congo

30 November 2008

BRUSSELS – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon favours sending an interim European force to Democratic Republic of Congo awaiting peacekeeping reinforcements, Belgium’s foreign minister said Sunday.

The UN Security Council has approved an additional 3,000 peacekeepers for the Congo mission, but the deployment "is going to take some time," Karel De Gucht told Belgium’s VRT television.

"For that reason, the United Nations hopes that a European military force could come and fill in the gap during this period," De Gucht said.

His spokesman Bart Ouvry told AFP that Ban had talked about an interim European force during De Gucht’s discussions with him this week at UN headquarters in New York.

Karel De Gucht - Photo AFP

The UN chief explained that help was needed to ease the humanitarian crisis caused by the fighting between rebels and Congolese government forces in eastern Nord-Kivu province.

"The reinforcement of 3,000 soldiers is going to take several months, and in the interval Mr Ban Ki-moon thinks that a European interim force would be needed," if it could be deployed, Ouvry said.

He added, however, that Belgium would have to see how many European countries would be willing to contribute troops to such a force.

The question is expected to be taken up at ministerial talks next week at NATO headquarters in Brussels, as well as at an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Helsinki.

In Kinshasa, government spokesman Lambert Mende told AFP that the authorities were open to the idea.

"The government views favourably such a force," Mende said. "Any force put into place – either as part of MONUC or not –  which contributes to stabilising the situation on a national and regional level is welcome."

DR Congo, Bunia - Photo AFP

Asked what its mandate should be, Mende replied it should follow that of the EU-led Artemis force that deployed to halt inter-militia fighting in Bunia, in eastern 0rientale province, in June through September 2003.

 Its mandate gave it the right to open fire if need be.

Laurent Nkunda’s rebels described the diplomatic development as an "unpleasant surprise".

"We thought the United Nations were looking for a peaceful resolution to the crisis," spokesman Bertran Bisimwa added, referring to UN special envoy and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo’s weekend meetings with President Joseph Kabila and Nkunda.

Bisimwa said Ban’s position shows that the path of negotiation was simply a "manoeuvre designed to win more time".

Last month, Belgium and France proposed sending troops to Nord-Kivu province, the central battleground of the conflict, to support the humanitarian efforts of the UN Mission in Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC).

Belgium was the colonial power in Congo before its independence in June 1960, while France – which holds the rotating EU presidency, and which put the resolution for more MONUC troops before the Security Council – has a long-standing interest in central Africa.

DR Congo - Photo AFP


But other EU member states, including Germany, are not in favour of military support – preferring to back humanitarian organisations and political mediation.

Pressure on the outside world to act could grow after the Congolese army said Sunday that it is to host military chiefs from regional African states in Kinshasa this week for discussions.

Spokesman Leon Richard Kasonga said army chiefs of staff from Angola – whose troops have fought alongside Congolese government forces in past conflicts – would be joined by those from Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Congo-Brazzaville, Sao Tome and Principe, and Chad.

Foreign ministry officials would also attend the talks, with unrest in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea on Africa’s west coast the other main agenda item.

Leaders from Africa’s Great Lakes region, meanwhile, will meet in Kenya on December 11, the grouping’s Tanzanian presidency said. Ex-Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa has been travelling with Obasanjo.

Long-simmering tensions between Kinshasa and rebels led by Tutsi ex-general Nkunda spilled over into a new conflict in August, displacing 250,000 people and creating a humanitarian disaster.