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EU Troops May Intervene in Congo Conflict

They would join U.N. forces to salvage last year's peace pact, a Belgian diplomat says.

June 08, 2004|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — As rebels continued to battle government soldiers in eastern Congo on Monday, Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel sought to mediate the conflict and suggested that European troops might be deployed in a bid to save the country's fragile peace deal.

Congolese troops were battling rebels on the outskirts of Bukavu, where fighting has killed nearly 100 people in recent weeks. The combat threatens last year's pact to end a five-year civil war, which left 3.3 million dead from the fighting and its related famine.

Congo, a former Belgian colony rich in resources and plagued by conflict, ushered in a transitional government last year that shared power with rebel forces. That arrangement was supposed to set the stage for democratic elections.

Under the peace deal, fighters with the Congolese Rally for Democracy, or RCD -- who controlled eastern Congo during the war -- were absorbed into a national army. But late last month many of them broke away and afterward seized control of Bukavu, driving government forces out.

Describing his trip as an emergency visit, Michel held talks in the capital, Kinshasa, with President Joseph Kabila and Vice President Azarias Ruberwa, a former chief of the RCD. Michel also met with William Swing, head of the United Nations mission.

"I am here on a peace mission," Michel said at a news conference, according to the South African Press Assn."What matters to me is to know that all conditions are met to consolidate the transition."

He urged that steps be taken to implement last year's peace plan, including demobilizing former combatants, and called for reinforcements and increased resources for the U.N. mission.

If the European Union decided to dispatch peacekeepers to eastern Congo, he said, they would work alongside the U.N. forces.

Michel later flew to Uganda for further talks on the crisis.

About 11,000 U.N. peacekeepers are stationed in Congo, but they have not intervened to prevent the conflict in Bukavu.

That decision provoked riots last week against the world body's mission in Kinshasa. Some U.N. staff members have since been pulled out of the country.

The EU deployed 1,850 peacekeepers, led by French soldiers, to northeastern Congo last year after hundreds of civilians died in ethnic strife. The mission was later handed over to U.N. forces.

The tension in Bukavu has fueled resentment in central Africa, with Kabila accusing Rwanda of backing the rebels -- a claim strongly denied by the Rwandan government, which reacted by closing its border with Congo.

Several neighboring countries were involved in Congo's civil war, including Rwanda, which invaded in pursuit of Hutu militias that had fled into Congo after the 1994 genocide. In that massacre, ethnic Hutus killed hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The rebel commanders in Bukavu, Laurent Nkunda and Jules Mutebusi, ousted government forces from the town after claiming that the troops were massacring Banyamulenge people -- Congolese Tutsis. Rwanda backed the RCD during Congo's civil war.

Nkunda, who controls 4,000 fighters, withdrew his forces from Bukavu on Sunday. But Mutebusi and his 200 to 300 men remain.

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