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Germany: Parliament Agrees To Send Small Military Force To Congo

  • Roland Eggleston

The German parliament has agreed to send a token force of noncombat troops to the war-stricken Democratic Republic of Congo to support the European Union military mission there. The EU mission is presently scheduled to finish at the end of August, which German commentators argue is too short to do any good.

Munich, 18 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The German parliament today approved a token force of 350 soldiers to join a European Union military mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose northern province is torn by civil war. An estimated 3 million people have been killed since the war began in August 1998.

Germany will provide medical teams, logistical support, and five transport aircraft, which can also be used to evacuate the wounded. The cost of the German mission is about 10 million euros.

The EU mission, which was approved by the UN Security Council at the end of May, is limited to 1,400 troops and is scheduled to end in August, which critics say gives it too little time to achieve results.

Fighting is centered on the city of Bunia, the main town in the mineral-rich district of Ituri in the northern Congo, where hundreds were killed in factional fighting in May between the rival Hema and Lendu ethnic groups. France, which heads the EU mission, already has about 500 troops in Bunia and is expected to send more next week. They are guarding two Lendu refugee camps from attack by the dominant Hema.

Reinforcements are also expected next week from other European countries. Paris says its goal is to try to stabilize the situation by separating the rival factions and establishing a neutral corridor between them. The European force has no mandate to actually disarm the two sides.

German Defense Minister Peter Struck made clear today that its soldiers are not combat troops. "We are not going there to fight but to provide noncombat support," he said. "There could be an exception if fighting breaks out while our men are evacuating the wounded or other victims. But generally, they will not be there to fight."

The German troops will not be based in Congo but across the border in the Ugandan town of Entebbe. Struck said German transport aircraft will unload cargo in Entebbe, which will be taken into Congo by the French or others. He said German aircraft will fly into Congo only in exceptional cases.

"We will fly into the region ourselves only in an emergency situation -- for example, the evacuation of United Nations staff or French or other soldiers," Struck said.

The details of the German role still must be decided with France. Struck said Germany set limits on its involvement largely because the military is already extended with its missions in Afghanistan and the Balkans. About 8,500 German soldiers are engaged in international operations in these places.

Struck agreed with critics that the time restriction limits the ability of the EU mission to stop the killing. But he argued that no one could say now how the situation will develop. It is possible that United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan will ask the European troops to remain longer. Struck said that would create a new situation for Germany, which would require a new decision by parliament on whether to stay.

The present EU mission is limited to the town of Bunia and the immediate neighborhood. Struck left open the possibility that the operation could be extended outside the town if serious fighting or fresh massacres occur elsewhere.

"Now the mission is restricted to the city. But if it develops that 50 kilometers from the city more massacres are taking place and there is more fighting, then, naturally, a decision must be taken on whether to broaden the field of operations," Struck said.

Struck said one factor which Germany had to take into account was that many of those fighting in Congo were teenagers or even younger -- the so-called child soldiers who have fought in several African civil wars in recent years. Many of them are believed to be high on drugs. Struck said Germany does not want its troops to be faced with a situation in which they might have to shoot at armed children.

"We have to deal with child soldiers on drugs who no longer have any respect for human life. I don't want our troops to have to fire on child soldiers in self-defense," he said.

German government officials and commentators stress that the Congo mission differs from the war in Iraq in that it has a mandate from the United Nations. It is the first time the EU has undertaken an international military mission independent of NATO. In talks with reporters, Struck emphasized the political importance of the decision.

"If we want to strengthen the European pillar of NATO, then we must be prepared to accept independent responsibility when the United Nations asks us to do so," he said.

Polls show the EU mission to Congo enjoys a wide degree of support among the German public. But it also has its critics. Among them is Werner Stutzle, a retired senior official in the Defense Ministry. He said today that he does not believe the EU force can achieve much with such a short mandate. Stutzle also said he has not heard any discussion on what Europe plans to do about easing the Congo crisis after 31 August.

A German relief worker who has just returned from Congo, Harry Donsbach, today described the situation in Congo as "one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies in the world today." He argued that any cease-fire arranged by EU troops would only be temporary and that fighting between the Hema and Lendu factions would resume as soon as the troops left. He noted that this has already been predicted by Thomas Lubanga, leader of the Hema faction, which drove the Lendu people out of Bunia in May after a series of massacres and heavy fighting.

Donsbach said he believes the EU should have a much longer mandate and should extend its operations to cover the whole of Ituri province and not just the town of Bunia. But he said this would require a force of 30,000 to 50,000 armed troops.

Other commentators doubt that either the United Nations or the European Union are ready to make such a commitment.