The United Nations Security Council ordered the deployment of an additional 3,000 international peacekeepers to Congo on Thursday to protect the lives of more than a quarter of a million civilians displaced by the latest escalation in Africa’s bloodiest war.
The reinforcements, yet to be identified and unlikely to be on the ground for several months, would bring the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission to 20,000. The European Union was, meanwhile, considering deploying a separate force in the area of Goma, where the UN is headquartered, to protect humanitarian aid supplies.
Although UN commanders in Congo are seeking the addition of a rapid deployment force, there was no immediate indication of whether European countries that are best equipped to supply one were ready to contribute to the 3,000 reinforcements.
The decade-long presence of the blue helmet force failed to deter an offensive last month in which rebels led by Laurent Nkunda, a renegade Tutsi commander, seized territory in the east of the country.
Although Mr Nkunda this week pulled back some of his forces amid peace moves by Olusegun Obasanjo, the UN’s special envoy and former Nigerian president, Congolese civilians were still at risk from an upsurge of fighting involving a plethora of armed groups.
Underlying the dilemma faced by the peacekeeping mission, UN soldiers this week came under fire from elements of the Mai Mai militia, a pro-government force that has been fighting Mr Nkunda’s rebels.
The situation is exacerbated by the presence of former forces of the ethnic Hutu regime in neighbouring Rwanda that was displaced by a Tutsi regime now accused of backing Mr Nkunda. The presence of active or demobilised Rwandan soldiers has also been reported in the conflict zone.
Alan Doss, the civilian British head of the UN’s Monuc force, said this week that the conflict was being fuelled by the illicit sale of rich mineral resources from the war zone. Congo’s north Kivu region is a significant source of casserite, or tin ore, and of coltan, which is used in the manufacture of mobile handsets.
“It’s very likely the mobile you have contains coltan from Kivu,” Mr Doss said in a video-conference with journalists in New York. “This link between armed groups and exports can only fuel the conflict. We need to consider where these resources come from and where they are going to.”
He said the UN was preparing a report on how to combat the illicit trade.
Yesterday’s UN resolution called on contingents in the 18-nation Monuc force to implement their mandate in full, “including through robust rules of engagement”. More than half the current force strength is from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, traditional UN troop contributors. Some national units, each with its own rules of engagement, have been criticised for being less willing than others to relocate within the UN area of operations or to use force in defence of civilians.
The UN resolution expressed concern at a deteriorating humanitarian situation that included targeted attacks on civilians, sexual violence and executions.