EU debates Congo force

December 8, 2008 12:00 am

, BRUSSELS, December 8 – The European Union debated Monday whether to dispatch peacekeepers to the Democratic Republic of Congo, amid clear divisions among member states over whether to plug a gap before the arrival of UN troops.

The United Nations wants the EU to supply troops as a "bridging force" in the east of the massive country where fighting has pitted rebels allied to renegade general Laurent Nkunda against government forces and allied militias.

Some 250,000 people have fled their homes in recent months.

But no EU nation has been willing to step forward to lead the mission — which would plug a security gap until UN reinforcements arrive — and Britain and Germany in particular are against sending a force.

"We’re going to see today, and I’m going to be in contact with the UN Secretary General in New York to see what they need, how much they need, when they need (it)," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said.

"This is a demand to think about the possibility of helping on the bridging process between the force which is now there and another few thousand that the United Nations is going to send," he said, as EU foreign ministers met.

The United Nations has deployed some 17,000 troops to Congo as part of its MONUC operation, the world’s biggest UN peacekeeping force, but it plans to send around 3,000 reinforcements, mainly from Africa.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expects the extra MONUC forces will need four months to deploy and has asked the EU to supply necessary security in the east as well as to help aid shipments get in.

In a letter that arrived in Brussels Friday, Ban asked "to look again into the possibility of some cooperation with the European Union, not to substitute the force which is the deployment of the United Nations," Solana said.

France and former colonial ruler Belgium last month proposed sending EU troops to Congo’s eastern Nord-Kivu province to support the UN deployment, but their appeals have largely fallen on deaf ears.

While the letter did not specify troop needs, ministers estimates ranged from 1,000-2,000 soldiers.

Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht said it was "urgent to take a decision" on a deployment amid rumours that Spain might be prepared to take charge of the force, even though Madrid denies this.

Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb urged his EU partners to send the bloc’s so-called Battle Groups — rapidly deployable but rarely used forces of around 1,500 troops that the EU keeps on standby.

"If we don’t send them to Congo, where are we going to send them?" he said. "Intervention in areas such as Congo is important."

But British Foreign Secretary David Miliband warned: "It is important that we ensure that there is no confusion on the ground in Congo.

"There needs to be a single chain of command and I think the UN force is the right way to do that," he said, noting also that "the political process there has gone better than some people imagined over the last three or four weeks."

The UN refugee agency said Friday that more than 90,000 people were missing in the conflict-hit eastern Democratic Republic of Congo after three makeshift camps in rebel-held areas were found emptied.

Many refugees have fled over the border to neighbouring Uganda and a charity warned Friday that they were in desperate need of food and emergency supplies.

"We have had a month of every possible excuse as to why Europe will not send forces to bolster UN peacekeepers in war-torn DRC," Elise Ford, head of Oxfam International in Brussels, said in a statement Sunday.


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