The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is to send military assistance to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where an insurgency is threatening to throw the east of the country into renewed disorder.
SADC executive secretary Tomaz Salamao says the regional body of which the DRC is a member will “not stand by and witness incessant and destructive acts of violence by any armed groups, against innocent people of DRC.”
Reading from a prepared statement after a summit in Johannesburg on the latest round of fighting in the DRC as well as a continuing political impasse in Zimbabwe, Salamao said the DRC`s armed forces (FARDC) “need to be assisted in order to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country.”
Salomao adds that the SADC backs calls for a ceasefire and the creation of a humanitarian corridor to safeguard aid for about 250 000 refugees.
French news agency AFP reports he further said a military advisory team would be deployed immediately to assist the FARDC, while another team would be sent to evaluate the situation on the ground to determine what other help might be needed.
A military monitoring commission will also be dispatched to monitor DR Congo’s border with Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, he added, “and if necessary” peacekeeping forces will be sent.
Salomao says the SADC also wants UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon to revise the mandate of the UN peace force in the DRC, known by its French acronym MONUC.
A similar call was made at a African Union-sponsored Great Lakes Region heads of state summit in Nairobi on Friday, attended by Ban as well as SA defence minister Charles Nqakula.
The SADC chief official added that the region would be watching the “performance and behaviour of MONUC” before taking “a further decision on deployment or not of peacekeeping forces in the SADC region.”
“We are aware that we are facing a tragedy and time is not on our side,” he added.
Reuters meanwhile reports that the Congo’s weak and chaotic army collapsed during Nkunda’s advance last week. But the appearance in North Kivu of more disciplined, Portuguese-speaking soldiers has fuelled speculation SADC member Angola has sent reinforcements.
According to AFP Salamao denied this but said they “could be sent in quickly”.
Leaders at the Nairobi summit also threatened to dispatch “peacemaking forces”, according to their communiqué.
Insurgent leader Laurent Nkunda this morning told Reuters he was ready to fight regional peacekeepers if they entered eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and supported the FARDC and its allies that include Hutu militants that was involved in the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.
Action not air-mile diplomacy
In the meantime, aid organisations are calling for more action and less “air mile diplomacy.”
Oxfam says European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels today “must provide clear commitments to send European troops to support the UN in eastern Congo.”
The organisation`s DRC head Juliette Prodhan says France and Britain`s foreign ministers flew from Kinshasa to Goma to Kigali to Dar-es-Salaam last weekend and made clear calls for urgent military reinforcement of the UN troops, “but absolutely nothing has changed on the ground”.
“Since the ministers visited the region, tens of thousands more people have fled as fighting has surged again in Kiwanja and Rutshuru. On Friday, shelling around Kibati camp, 5kms north of Goma – where Oxfam is working – caused thousands of civilians to flee towards Goma town. After a night of hiding in host families and in schools and churches, most appeared to have returned to the camp, but remain scared and vulnerable.
“The situation is still tense with just 200 metres between the Congolese government and rebel positions. In Kanyabayonga – where Oxfam is also working – thousands more fled on Saturday as the Congolese army retreated from positions around Rutshuru,” she says.
Prodhan says the EU is “well placed to rapidly provide the additional troops. It has a history of successful peacekeeping in Congo and through its mission in Chad, Europe has shown it can play a vital role in protecting civilians.” European countries currently contribute just 100 of the 17 000 UN troops in Congo, she says.
Redeploying troops from elsewhere in the Kivu provinces and eastern Congo is not the solution either as other parts of the region are also insecure and in danger of all-out conflict, Oxfam says.
“To do so would leave civilians elsewhere vulnerable to attack. In Ituri and Dungu in the northwest Orientale Province thousands have been forced to flee an upsurge in fighting, including 57 000 in recent attacks on 1 and 2 November.
Oxfam adds that “practical steps” must be taken to improve MONUC`s performance. “Without better leadership and a genuine commitment to address both the immediate crisis and the factors that have created it, even with additional troops MONUC risks achieving very little.
“There is not a military solution to this conflict nor can it be solved simply by providing more troops or military hardware. However, if done properly, additional military support could help improve security, protect civilians and allow aid agencies to provide help to all those that desperately need it.”
Oxfam peer group Refugees International has made a similar call, saying MONUC – that includes over a thousand South African personnel, “is stretched beyond all reasonable expectations” and needs a “clear, well-resourced mandate” and “above all, the guarantee of sustained, high-level political support” to succeed.