/ 11 September 2008

UN peacekeepers mobilise as fighting flares in DRC

United Nations peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have transferred troops to hot spots in the east of the country to handle the fall-out of increased fighting there between rebels and the army.

Monuc, the United Nations Mission in DRC, which has 14 000 peacekeepers deployed in the country, had moved troops from Sud-Kivu and Ituri towards Nord-Kivu, which borders Uganda and Rwanda, said a spokesperson.

”We have very mobile units, armoured cars, helicopters, we are ready,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich.

Fighting broke out in late August in Nord-Kivu between government troops, the FARDC, and rebels of the CNDC, led by renegade Tutsi colonel Laurent Nkunda.

”Monuc will continue to intervene with all means at its disposal and will take all necessary measures to assure the protection of the population and the free circulation on the main roads,” said Dietrich.

Peacekeepers were also patrolling Lake Kivu, which forms part of the border between DRC and Rwanda, to prevent any fighters reaching Goma, the regional capital of Nord-Kivu, he added.

”We have the means on the ground and we will not let village after village be taken,” said Dietrich.

Nkunda loyalists and government forces have skirmished regularly in the hills of North Kivu since August 28, with both sides blaming each other for the violence.

The fighting, which violates the Goma peace accords signed in January, has continued despite the efforts of UN peacekeepers to intervene.

On Friday, Monuc forces used helicopter flyovers and fired warning shots to stop Nkunda’s fighters from taking the village of Nyanzale, in the Rutshuru district, 65km north of Goma.

Government troops had abandoned the village as the rebel fighters advanced, said military and UN sources.

”At Nyanzale, a whole integrated brigade disintegrated, they fled,” said Dietrich.

Two days later, this same brigade, which had been ordered to move, pulled back, pillaging the local population on its route, according to the UN-sponsored Radio Okapi.

While the authorities in Kinshasa have denounced Monuc for failing to support one side or the other, the UN peacekeepers have said that their priority is to protect local civilians rather than to take sides.

On Saturday, UN peacekeepers demanded that Nkunda’s group withdraw from one position they had taken.

But when Monuc made a similar demand of government forces last week, they were accused of siding with Nkunda and attacked by demonstrators in Rutshuru, north of Goma.

One UN vehicle was burned and the peacekeepers had to open fire to withdraw, wounding one demonstrator.

With tensions rising, one Monuc helicopter had even come under fire from government troops, said Dietrich.

The mandate of the UN peacekeepers allows them to use force but only to protect the civilian population, said spokesperson Sylvie van den Wildenberg in Kinshasa on Wednesday.

”The signatories of the Goma peace accord [the government and the rebels] have to let us play our part,” she insisted, adding that this was becoming increasingly difficult.

She repeated Monuc’s call for the two sides to end the clashes.

Early on Wednesday however, fresh fighting broke out at Ntamugenga, 80km north of Goma, and at Kirotse and Shasa, 40km east of Goma, said Colonel Antoine Mushumba of the DRC’s sixth brigade.

”That makes it the sixth time that they have attacked us with heavy and light weapons,” he said.

Four wounded soldiers had been admitted to hospital in nearby Rutshuru, a nurse there confirmed. — AFP