ENTEBBE, Uganda (Reuters) - Budget cuts mean the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Democratic Republic of the Congo lacks sufficient helicopter strength to operate effectively in the country’s unstable east, a U.N. official said on Wednesday.
Under pressure from Congolese President Joseph Kabila, the U.N. Security Council agreed in May to allow a phased withdrawal of the United Nations’ biggest peacekeeping force while renaming it MONUSCO and shifting its focus to reconstruction, training and other aid.
The move triggered a $73 million cut to MONUSCO’s roughly $1.3 billion budget. About $61 million of that is hitting the type and amount of aircraft available to the force, Paul Buades, head of MONUSCO’s logistic support base in Entebbe, told Reuters.
Buades said the cutbacks will make it harder to carry out operations like the capture on Tuesday of a rebel commander accused of orchestrating a series of mass rapes in Congo.
The attacks illustrated how peace remains elusive in the country’s sprawling eastern provinces, which are roughly the size of France.
“We can’t support the forces in more robust operations like this,” Buades said. “The jungle is the jungle.”
Buades said eight attack helicopters were withdrawn when a batch of Indian peacekeepers were recently pulled out of Congo. More Indian troops and helicopters are expected to go in the coming months.
In its new role, MONUSCO is still providing logistical support for Congolese combat troops fighting rebels.
Before the cuts, the mission had about 68 helicopters and planes at its disposal, Buades said. It is now losing military helicopters and will be left with only commercial ones.
Buades raised his concerns with U.N. Security Council members visiting Uganda and Sudan. “It reduces the capability of the forces,” he told the 15-nation delegation. “I cannot deliver up to the ambition (MONUSCO chief Roger Meece) wants.”
Among those on the trip are U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin and Chinese envoy Li Baodong.
Congo’s eastern provinces are plagued by Rwandan Hutu insurgents who have lingered in the vast and mineral-rich region since 1998-2003.
The U.N. base in Entebbe supplies vehicles and hardware to the world body’s peacekeeping missions across the region.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that despite limited resources, MONUSCO was taking steps to try to better protect civilians, such as increasing random patrols and improving systems for villagers to contact the mission.
He told reporters that at a meeting with Kabila during last month’s U.N. General Assembly gathering he had proposed that any further drawdown of MONUSCO should be based on a “joint assessment of the situation.”
Acknowledging that the force faced an “acute shortage of critical assets,” Ban said, “We are now trying to make up for all these losses ... but it is going to be quite a difficult operation.”