India withdraws last attack helicopters from Congo peacekeeping mission


India has withdrawn its last four attack helicopters from the United Nations mission in the Congo, saying they are needed for domestic security tasks.

“The last four of the Russian-origin Mi-35 attack helicopters – used for close air support during assault operations on ground targets – that were operating in Congo in aid of UN blue berets have returned to India and will soon join their duties in support of the army troops,” a defence ministry official told the Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) today.

The Indian Air Force had deployed eight Mil Mi-35 and Mi-25 attack helicopters as well as nine Mi-17 transport helicopters to the United Nations mission in the Congo (MONUSCO). The Mi-25s and Mi-17s were withdrawn earlier this year, with the Mi-17s supporting army troops in India and assisting in the fight against Maoist insurgents.

India’s contract with MONUSCO expired on July 4. The Congo is heading towards a presidential election next month, prompting the UN to call for the helicopters to stay in the country. However, India turned down the UN’s request but Manjeev Singh Puri, India’s Deputy Ambassador to the UN, said that India had already extended the services of the helicopters for a couple of months at the request of the United Nations.

India first announced in September last year that it was taking back its helicopters serving with the United Nations. The Indian Air Force had informed the defence ministry that operating attack helicopters in Africa necessitated cannibalising other helicopters for spare parts, potentially grounding parts of the fleet.

The United Nations is not happy about India’s decision. In February the UN predicted a shortfall of nearly sixty helicopters by April. “It remains the case that too many of our missions struggle without critical assets necessary to properly fulfil their mandates, assets that only Member States can provide,” Alain Le Roy, UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping told the UN General Assembly’s Special Committee on Peacekeeping in February.
“Military helicopter units, in particular, are an absolute force requirement for operations conducted in vast and remote locations, as many of our missions do,” Le Roy said.

Roger Meece, the UN special representative, warned the Security Council in June that, “I am obliged to note that military operations are being negatively impacted by the shortage of military helicopters.”

Although it has withdrawn its combat and transport helicopters, India said early last month that it was sending an army aviation unit to the Congo’s Kivu province as part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission there.

The unit comprises of 70 personnel and six light utility Chetak (HAL-built Alouette III) and Cheetah (HAL-built Alouette II) helicopters. The contingent, led by Colonel Shantanu Kashyap, will remain in the Congo for one year. It will provide air support for UN peacekeepers and will undertake surveillance, observation, search and rescue, medical and reconnaissance flights.

The UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) came into effect on September 3, 1999. It will continue until Kinshasa shows it can govern its restive east and was recently extended to June 30 next year. In a report on the Congo, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said some 1.738 million people remain displaced in the vast country, including some 1.25 million in North and South Kivu. “The situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo remains fragile,” Ban said.

The French-drafted resolution on the mandate said that “future reconfigurations of MONUSCO should be determined on the basis of the evolution of the situation on the ground and on the achievement of … (specific) objectives.” Those objectives include “reducing to a minimum the threat from armed groups and restoring stability in sensitive areas” as well as improving Kinshasa’s ability to provide protection and consolidate its authority throughout the country.

The UN said it was “greatly concerned by the humanitarian situation and the persistent high levels of violence and human rights abuses and violations against civilians.”

It also condemned “targeted attacks against civilians, widespread sexual and gender-based violence, recruitment and use of children by parties to the conflict, forced displacement and extrajudicial executions.”

The U.N. special representative on sexual violence last year called eastern Congo the rape capital of the world, a label the government has strongly rejected.

Several armed groups continue to operate in mineral-rich eastern Congo since a 1998-2003 war that killed 5 million people, and the government has struggled to counter them despite support from nearly 20,000 blue-helmeted peacekeepers, the biggest exclusively U.N. force in the world.

The Congo is heading towards a presidential election on November 28, prompting the UN to call on Congo to ensure that its elections take place in an atmosphere conducive to a “free, fair, credible, inclusive, transparent, peaceful and timely electoral process.”

It added that the council “calls upon all parties to respect the results of the polls.”

As of July 31, MONUSCO had 18 997 uniformed personnel, including 17 010 military personnel, 746 military observers, 1 241 police (including formed units), 983 international civilian personnel, 2 828 local civilian staff and 580 United Nations Volunteers.