KIWANJA, November 20 – The UN Security Council approved Thursday an extra 3,000 peacekeeping troops to help put a lid on conflict in the east of Democratic Republic of Congo.,
Its decision in New York came hours after fresh fighting erupted between rebels and pro-government Mai-Mai militia outside Kiwanja, scene of fierce clashes earlier this month in which at least 50 civilians were killed.
In its resolution, the Security Council said the length of deployment of the additional 2,785 military personnel and 300 police officers to the UN mission in Congo (MONUC) would hinge on the security situation.
"This temporary increase in personnel aims at enabling MONUC to reinforce its capacity to protect civilians, to reconfigure its structure and forces and to optimise their deployment," it said.
It went on to underscore "the importance of MONUC implementing its mandate in full, including through robust rules of engagement," in the resolution sponsored by France, which has long-standing interest in central Africa.
MONUC, the biggest UN peacekeeping mission in the world, already has 17,000 troops in Congo, a number that UN officials regarded as insufficient to deal with an escalating conflict in a region teeming with natural resources.
Five thousand of those UN troops are in Nord-Kivu where fighting flared at the end of August.
Rebels from the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) led by Laurent Nkunda remain on the threshold of Goma, the main city in the east of Congo and capital of Nord-Kivu province.
On the diplomatic front, the Angolan foreign ministry said Congo President Joseph Kabila will visit Luanda on Friday to meet with Angola’s leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos to discuss the conflict.
Angola last week denied it plans to send troops to Congo to fight alongside government forces.
Thursday’s fighting erupted in Katoro and Nyongera, both villages on the northern outskirts of Kiwanja in Nord-Kivu province, a security source in Kiwanja who asked to remain anonymous told AFP.
By mid-day, an AFP correspondent in the area reported that the sound of heavy weapons firing had ceased, but not before the Mai-Mai accused UN troops of fighting alongside the rebels.
"MONUC fired on our forces, they found themselves in difficulty and called for help to the CNDP," said Mai-Mai spokesman Didier Bitaki. "It is a CNDP/MONUC coalition against the Mai-Mai. The CNDP are trying to dislodge us from Katoro."
The UN mission denied the charge, as its chief official Alan Doss accused the rebels of serious breaches of human rights in a letter to Nkunda seen by AFP.
On Wednesday, UN peacekeepers opened fire on the Mai-Mai fighters in the area after two UN armoured cars came under Mai-Mai gunfire whilst out on patrol.
Rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said the use of heavy weapons meant that government troops and Rwandan Hutu rebels were involved in Thursday’s fighting, and that the Hutu forces were fighting alongside the government soldiers.
MONUC was unable to confirm that claim.
"They tried to advance on our positions at around 6:30 am (0430 GMT) to take Kiwanja," said Bisimwa. "Our forces are currently resisting them."
A local villager who had fled Katoro to Kiwanja, five kilometres (three miles) away, told AFP: "It started towards 7:30 am. The Mai-Mai were advancing on Katoro."
"When the rebels saw them, they opened fire. They were using all sorts of weapons."
Thursday’s fighting came a day after Nkunda’s rebels pulled back 30 to 40 kilometres (20 to 25 miles) from two other fronts in Nord-Kivu, at points away from the current fighting.
They did so, they said, in order to "give peace a chance" and to help mediation efforts undertaken by the UN envoy for Congo, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo.
In Kigali, Britain’s junior foreign minister for Africa Mark Malloch-Brown called on Rwandan President Paul Kagame on Thursday "to use his influence" over Nkunda’s rebels to end the fighting.
But Malloch-Brown, who just spent three days in Congo, cautioned in a BBC interview: "One’s got to get to the roots in the Congo itself, not believe that somehow the solution just lies in here in Kigali."