Alarming reports have been flooding out of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where interethnic violence continues to rage despite last year's official resolution of a four-year civil conflict that claimed some 3 million lives. The international community, stung by its failure to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, is taking steps to stop the bloodletting in one Congolese province that has seen constant clashes since the late 1990s.
Prague, 5 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union has approved plans to send a 1,400-strong military force to the northeastern Ituri province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The DRC mission, which comes in response to a request from United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, will be the first EU military mission to be completely independent from NATO.
EU foreign policy and security chief Javier Solana made the announcement late yesterday in Brussels. "Today the [EU political and security committee] has approved a joint action that is the legal instrument for the deployment of a European Union-led operation in Africa. It is the first European Union-led operation that we are going to take under our responsibility and in the coming days, probably at the beginning of next week, we will have the whole operation, the operation plan, produced by the military people [at the EU headquarters here]," Solana said.
The first elements of the European contingent -- expected to comprise mainly French soldiers -- are due to be deployed within a week (12 June). A French team has already left to set up an advance base in the Ugandan town of Entebbe.
Paris yesterday confirmed it will send nearly 1,000 troops supported by artillery and combat aircraft.
The decision to send troops to the DRC was formally approved today in Luxembourg at a meeting of EU justice and interior ministers.
The EU-led DRC mission received the early approval of the UN Security Council last week. Other European countries, including Britain, Ireland, Sweden, and Germany, are also expected to participate in the three-month operation, although the scale and timing of their role remains to be determined. Finland today said it would need the approval of its parliament before possibly committing troops.
Canada and countries from Africa and possibly Asia may also contribute troops or logistical support. The total cost of the mission is expected to reach 34 million euros.
A recent upsurge of interethnic hostilities has left thousands of Ituri residents dead since early April. The UN reports that in the last two weeks alone, some 500 people have been massacred in the province, which neighbors Central Africa's Great Lakes region.
Starting in 1998, the DRC was the scene of a four-year civilian war involving five other states in the region -- Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Uganda. Some of those nations have supported the rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy in its fight against the Kinshasa-based central government.
The UN and human rights groups estimate that of the 3 million people killed during the war, some 60,000 were from Ituri province alone.
Last year, the warring factions agreed to settle their dispute by holding peace talks. But the situation in Ituri remains unstable, mainly because of a continued rivalry between Uganda and Rwanda for control of the ore-rich province.
Both of those countries last year pledged to withdraw their troops from Ituri. But Uganda until recently maintained its military presence there, ostensibly to help pacify the region. Rwanda, in turn, is suspected of sponsoring a new rebel movement based in Bunia, Ituri's provincial capital.
Bunia has been overrun by a variety of militia groups since 1998. It is currently controlled by the Hema ethnic group. Members of the rival Lendu ethnic group have been expelled and settled around Bunia.
Uganda and Rwanda have in the past used the Hema and the Lendu as proxies to advance their strategic interests in the region, fueling hatred between the two groups.
The Lendu are believed to be behind the recent massacres that have taken place in and around Bunia. But the town has also fallen prey to uncontrolled factions that have continued to loot, murder, and rape defenseless civilians despite the presence of UN troops.
In the DRC, the Ituri violence has left its mark on foreigners as well. Last month, two UN military observers, a Jordanian and a Malawian, were abducted by unidentified gunmen and tortured to death.
Armed gangs have also targeted relief workers based in Bunia. Following the abduction of eight Italian aid workers in April, two members of the local Red Cross were killed last month while retrieving corpses from around the provincial capital.
Ituri residents are looking forward to the arrival of the European troops, and say they hope it will spell an end to the daily chaos and violence.
Angry civilians have criticized, and sometimes threatened, the UN personnel in Bunia over their inability to restore order. The situation has prompted unfavorable comparisons to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, when thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by Serbian forces despite the presence of Dutch peacekeepers.
Following the withdrawal of Ugandan troops in April, some 750 international peacekeepers -- most of them unarmed -- have been garrisoned in Bunia. But the UN soldiers, who belong to a 4,300-strong force currently deployed in the DRC (the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or MONUC), are allowed only to guard UN property and escort relief workers.
A Bunia resident, who identified himself as Kibalaka, yesterday told Reuters Television he hoped the French-led force would be more efficient than the UN contingent. "I will be happy to see the French come, because we will be able to settle our disputes and we will have peace," Kibalaka said.
One Ituri woman said she had come to Bunia to escape massacres in the countryside. She also welcomed the upcoming deployment. "We have been on the run since 5 May. We have encountered many problems in the [refugee] camp, and we would appreciate it if the French could come so that we could go back home," she said.
Although the French-led European force will be authorized to use force to protect civilians, its mandate will be limited to Bunia. It is due to be replaced on 1 September by a 5,000-strong UN peacekeeping contingent from Bangladesh.
Leaders of the Hema militia controlling the town have in principle agreed to cooperate with the EU force, but have warned that they will not disarm. They also insist that they be allowed to keep hundreds of fighters in Bunia.
Meanwhile, a UN delegation will visit the DRC and neighboring states in the coming days to press for the creation of a transitional government in Kinshasa. The mission, which includes ambassadors from 12 Security Council members, will visit Bunia next week (12 June).
(RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas contributed to this report.)