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PRESS BRIEFING ON DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

3 March 2005

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United Nations was not engaged in war -– it was engaged in trying to create peace, correspondents were told at a Headquarters press briefing this afternoon. The role of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) was to create security and defend civilians.

Briefing the press on the United Nations operation today were François Dureau, Chief of the Situation Centre in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations; Margaret Carey, Deputy Director of the Africa Division in the Department’s Office of Operations; and Steve O’Malley, Chief of the Africa I Section at the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Mr. Dureau told correspondents that, following reports of a large presence of the militia known as the Nationalist Integrationist Front (FNI), the United Nations Mission on 1 March launched a so-called “cordon-and-search” operation in the area of Loga, some 38 kilometres north-east of Ituri’s provincial capital. Taking part in the operation were 242 troops from Pakistan, Nepal and South Africa, under the command of a Pakistani battalion commander. The operation was aimed at recovering arms and ammunition and dismantling a local headquarters for FNI.

Information collected prior to the operation indicated that FNI could have as many as 450 militia members in the area and that it was planning an attack on a United Nations camp nearby. The operation started at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, with the movement of 12 armoured personnel carriers (APCs). At about 10:30 a.m., the troops came under heavy fire when approaching the village of Loga. Taking advantage of the protection provided by the APCs, the United Nations troops resorted to controlled fire and movement, in order to prevent casualties, both on peacekeepers and the local population present in a nearby marketplace.

In the second phase of engagement, the United Nations troops entered the market area 45 minutes after the initial shooting. That gave the militias ample time to occupy the high ground around the village, from which they continued firing at the troops. At that time, the operation commander called in air support and put reserve troops on high alert. Around 11 a.m., while cordoning the village and securing a landing area for helicopters, the United Nations came under heavy fire again. At noon, a house-to-house search operation was launched, during which the FNI headquarters compound was dismantled and a number of weapons, ammunition and documents collected. In the process, an estimated 50 to 60 militia members were killed and two Pakistani peacekeepers were wounded. Both were evacuated to South Africa. Throughout the operation, United Nations troops exercised restraint to avoid casualties among civilians.

Tuesday’s clash happened near a place where nine Bangladeshi troops had been killed in an ambush last week, and several questions from correspondents related to that incident. In that connection, Ms. Carey said that Bangladeshi peacekeepers had been killed at point-blank range, and their arms and uniforms had been taken. Contrary to some reports in the media, they had not been mutilated.

To that, Mr. Dureau added that there were strong indications that the FNI was, indeed, responsible for the attack on the Bangladeshi unit, but he would not describe the 1 March United Nations operation as retaliation. There was no direct link between the casualties suffered by the Mission and Tuesday’s operation.

To questions about the “cordon-and-search” operation, Ms. Carey said that it had been planned before the attack on the Bangladeshi peacekeepers. The Mission knew that the village was an FNI stronghold. The peacekeepers had succeeded in dismantling the militia’s headquarters and found important information there, which included plans by FNI to attack certain internally displaced persons installations.

Since the authorization of the Ituri brigade by the Security Council in August 2003, the Mission had been operating under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, she continued. With a serious deterioration of the security situation in the Ituri area since November, the international community had seen increased action by the Mission, but that strengthened action was in keeping with the Mission’s robust mandate. Also, the FNI militias in Loga were not “a ragtag group”. Rather, they were well-trained and organized. They knew exactly what they were doing when attacking Mission troops.

There were no civilian casualties during the operation, Mr. Dureau added. In fact, following the operation, the peacekeepers rescued two women from the village. One of them had just delivered a baby, and the other was unable to move.

Asked who trained and supported the militias, Ms. Carey said that they were getting arms from neighbouring countries and were supported by elements both in those countries and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo itself. Ituri was extremely rich in gold, diamonds and mineral resources, and the armed groups there were continually realigning with one another, breaking up and coming back together again, seeking to take advantage of the resources there. Their supporters also “had their fingers in the pie”. The real answer to the problems in Ituri would be to extend State administration to the region and set up a legitimate system of taxation and customs. Overall, the number of militias amounted to about 15,000 people. As for the FNI, according to the “loose figures” available, its force was about 4,000.

To several questions about the Mission, she said that its operation was geared towards the protection of civilians, security and work with the Transitional Government in setting up legitimate governance throughout Ituri. The Mission had almost reached its authorized force of 16,700. The last two brigades would be fully deployed in the coming days.

Asked whether the philosophy of peacekeeping had changed since Rwanda and Srebrenica and whether the United Nations was now taking a more aggressive stand, Ms. Carey explained to correspondents that lessons had certainly been learned in the past 10 or 15 years. On the basis of those lessons, new peacekeeping missions had been designed. The Secretary-General had very clearly said that he would never tell the Security Council what it wanted to hear. He would tell the Council what it needed to know. He also said that he would plan for worst-case scenarios.

Indeed, there had been a change in peacekeeping, she continued. Military contingents needed to be able to fulfil their mandates, and peacekeeping was robust now. The Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo had been designed to be robust from the very beginning, and there had been no change in the way it conducted its activities. The Mission was trying to establish basic security on the ground, so that parties themselves could establish peace and create a legitimate government structure. The Mission was impartial and not at war with any of the parties.

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