June 12, 2009 / 1:35 PM / 11 years ago

UN soldiers row over Congo civilian protection

CHAMBUCHA, Congo (Reuters) - United Nations peacekeepers are refusing to patrol a zone in eastern Congo, leaving tens of thousands of civilians vulnerable to massacres, rapes and looting by gunmen, officials and witnesses said.

U.N. peacekeepers patrol a road in Kibati, about 25 km (16 miles) north of the provincial capital of Goma, October 28, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer

The civilians, under attack from Rwandan Hutu rebels, are trapped in a corner of North Kivu province Indian peacekeepers officially operate in but cannot get to due to poor roads, and Pakistani soldiers nearby refuse to enter due to procedures.

“We asked for (the Pakistanis) to patrol in the southern part of North Kivu, but they refused to leave their area of responsibility,” a U.N. official, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

Congo hosts the U.N.’s largest force but the mission there is stretched thin across the vast nation still trying to consolidate peace in its eastern provinces, three years after polls that were meant to end a decade of war and chaos.

Over the last few months, the world body’s blue helmets have supported Congo’s army in continuing operations, first launched with help from former foe Rwanda, against the Hutu rebels who have been at the heart much of Congo’s conflict.

U.N. Security Council member states have touted the offensive as a major step forward but it has failed to curb attacks on civilians, who have been targeted by the Rwandan rebels who accuse them of collaboration.

“The main villages have been burned. It’s deserted. There are only gunmen now. There’s not a single U.N. position,” said Isaac Mongolare, who until February, administered 14 health centres meant to serve around 100,000 people in the area.

Today, just six of the zone’s health centres remain.

“WE HAVE TO PROTECT THEM”

The United Nations estimates that 800,000 civilians have been forced from their homes since the beginning of the year in the Kivus due to abuses committed by both the rebels and the government troops. More operations are planned for South Kivu.

In one attack last month, the Rwandan Hutu rebels, known as the FDLR, are accused of shooting or hacking to death at least 60 civilians during an overnight raid on the nearby village of Busurungi, which lies just north of the provincial border.

The U.N. mission, known as MONUC, is still waiting for extra soldiers that were approved by the Security Council during a previous escalation in clashes last year but have not been sent.

“We are looking at whether it’s possible to deploy a base with the means we have,” said U.N. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich when asked what the mission was doing to protect civilians on the provincial border.

“We have to protect them. It’s planned, but we have to look at the technical side,” he added.

Congolese civilians struggle to balance their expectations with the reality of what the U.N. peacekeepers on the ground can do as diplomats scramble to secure more troops.

“We’re for MONUC, but they never come,” said Dynamic Kangauka, Chambucha’s local chief.

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