KINSHASA, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Eight Guatemalan U.N. troops killed in Congo last week were casualties of a botched hunt for a top Ugandan rebel which has sparked a debate about the U.N.'s peacekeeping tactics, diplomats and U.N. sources said on Tuesday.
The Guatemalan "Kaibil" Special Forces soldiers were killed on Jan. 23 during what the U.N. mission in Democratic Republic of Congo officially says was a "reconnaissance patrol" in the eastern Garamba National Park near the border with Sudan.
It was the second deadliest loss in the history of the U.N. mission in Congo, the world's biggest peacekeeping force.
Guatemala has demanded an inquiry into the deaths, which occurred in a four-hour gunbattle with fighters of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), one of a number of Ugandan rebel groups still operating in northeastern Congo after the end of a five-year war. At least 15 rebels were also killed in the clash.
While the U.N. declines to give further details about the Guatemalans' mission, U.N. sources and diplomats in Kinshasa said their operation raised questions about how far the world body should go in enforcing peace in Congo.
One senior U.N. official, who asked not to be named, said the contingent of 80 Guatemalan special forces troops were trying to capture or kill the LRA's deputy commander, Vincent Otti, after locating his suspected camp.
"It was an operation that went wrong," he told Reuters.
"This was clearly an attack -- special forces do not carry out recces (reconnaissance) in groups that large," said a Kinshasa-based diplomat. "They attacked but the LRA were dug in and more organised than people thought.
Led by self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Kony, the LRA has terrorised communities in Uganda's remote north, killing villagers, slicing off survivors' lips or ears and abducting more than 20,000 children as fighters, porters and sex slaves.
U.N. and Congolese troops were also deployed against LRA rebels late last year after they crossed over the border.
Diplomats say the Guatemalan deaths could make countries contributing troops to the U.N. more reluctant to allow their soldiers to take part in high-risk operations in Congo, where the peacekeepers have been regularly battling Congolese and foreign rebels ahead of elections due this year.
"Capitals may tell their commanders in the mission that they don't want to see body bags coming home so they shouldn't take part in similar operations," the diplomat said.
With some 17,000 soldiers and policemen, the U.N. mission in Congo is the world body's largest. But the blue helmets are spread across a vast country the size of Western Europe where fighting continues three years after the war officially ended.
Sergio Morales, Guatemala's human rights ombudsman, said last week the Guatemalan troops were "doing the dirty work" of the United Nations. And U.N. officials concede they are pushing the limits of their mandate with covert operations.
"Yes, there will be lots of questions asked about what they (the Guatemalans) were doing. And yes, very few people knew about it," the U.N. official said. "But any mission like this needs to be secret for operational security."
Diplomats say there are divisions over the incident in the local U.N. peacekeeping mission, which has been chastised in the past for doing too little to keep the peace. Some members are now concerned it could be seen as being too aggressive.
Twenty U.N. peacekeepers have been killed in Congo over the last year in which U.N. forces operating with Congolese government troops have raided rebel camps and brought in attack helicopters to support ground operations.
"These are high risk operations and unfortunately sometimes people get killed," Jason Stearns, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, told Reuters.
"But the Security Council has made many declarations on the LRA so I don't think there are any contradictions in the U.N. going after them in Congo," he added.
The LRA leadership is wanted by the International Criminal Court to face atrocities charges.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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