DR Congo

Press conference by Secretary-General's Special Representative on Democratic Republic of Congo

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Amid resumed fighting among rebel and Government forces, United Nations peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were "stretched to the limit" and needed support as soon as possible -- in the form of troops and police units ?- to stabilize the situation, the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Representative for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Alan Doss, said today at a Headquarters press conference.

Updating reporters, via videolink from the country's capital city of Kinshasa, Mr. Doss stressed that the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) was in a "very difficult, tense situation", which started last Saturday when fighting flared around the eastern province of North Kivu, its capital city of Goma, and in the district of Rutshuru, near the Rwandan border. There had been attacks by Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) forces, and counter-attacks by Government troops in those areas; the United Nations Mission had intervened to prevent further escalation.

However, the situation remained fluid, "evolving every hour or two", he said. The road between Goma and Rutshuru had been attacked, and fighting near a major camp for internally displaced persons had created an exodus. In some places, Government forces had not held, and positions had been abandoned. Local populations in Goma and Rutshuru had been involved with stone throwing, and yesterday attempted to enter a MONUC base, which prompted United Nations forces to fire in the air. The incident led to one death amid stray bullets. He deeply regretted that, and had tried to explain that such events impeded the Mission's response to hostile forces. He had asked the Governor and others in Kinshasha to sensitize populations to the Mission's work.

Other factors further complicated the picture, he said, including large numbers of internally displaced persons on the roads, and an incident earlier today in Rutshuru, in which elements of the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) appeared to have fired on humanitarian workers. His Office had made it known at the highest Government levels that such actions were "totally unacceptable".

As for the Mission's work, he said forces had been on alert for several weeks, and the North Kivu brigade was doing an excellent job in extremely adverse conditions. He had met with the President and senior Government officials on several occasions to encourage pursuit of a political process, and engagement on diplomatic levels to reduce tensions that had risen to "dangerous" levels between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. The Mission was making every effort to encourage a return to the peace process, the absence of which could have disastrous consequences for all people in North Kivu.

Despite such conditions, he was encouraged by the Security Council's full support for the Mission, and its review later today of the situation in North Kivu. Addressing criticism that the Mission had not stopped the fighting, he said it was important to recognize it was engaged on four fronts: North Kivu; South Kivu; Ituri; and Orientale, where the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) had been active in recent weeks. The Mission did not have a big force in Orientale, as it did not have the means; however, it had provided support to the FARDC, which had mounted a "containment operation" to prevent the LRA attacks on civilians.

Taking a question on whether the Mission was "losing the battle" because it was over-stretched, Mr. Doss explained it was not a question of defeating. He wanted the CNDP to remain committed to agreements they had signed. The Mission would not allow an overthrow of a democratic process or a democratically elected Government, a task which had become more complicated because of the huge area the Mission needed to cover with limited resources. He hoped to press on the diplomatic and political fronts to bring the group back into the peace process. Ex-Rwanda elements and various militias in North Kivu and Ituri were also active, and his principal aim was to protect population centres and key access to them. He wanted an outcome that was broadly acceptable to all parties concerned.

To a question on whether the United Nations had used attack helicopters against certain forces, he said the Mission had used helicopters around Kibumba, where there was a displacement camp, to prevent further movement south towards Goma. The CNDP had broken into smaller groups to infiltrate Goma. Further north, towards Rutshuru, the Mission had taken on CNDP elements using both land and air forces. However, in trying to move humanitarian workers to a safer place, FARDC forces tried to prevent that, and the Mission had to respond to ensure the safety of those workers, some of whom were still in Rutshuru. The situation was evolving and there would be an updated operational account this afternoon.

Asked for details surrounding the departure of General Diaz, Mr. Doss said the General had resigned for his own reasons, deciding to return to Spain, in his view, "prematurely", as he had been in the position only for a few weeks. While he was sorry to see that happen, the Mission had ensured continuity. He had not seen very much of General Diaz. They had agreed to meet in Brussels last Thursday to discuss issues; however, before the meeting could take place, the General informed the Spanish Government of his wish to return. "That was his decision," he said, adding that: "I have no time to have regrets on these things; we just have to go on." He was looking for a replacement or a temporary replacement.

Asked about the size of United Nations forces, particularly around Goma, he said the United Nations had a total 17,000 troops in a country the size of Western Europe. Orientale and Ituri provinces were the size of France, with no roads or infrastructure. Most of the 17,000 were in the East. In North Kivu, there were fewer than 6,000 troops, and at any one time there was a "relatively modest" frontline force spread over that province. As the CNDP was an irregular force, it could divide into small groups and move around to create trouble. The sound of gunfire, particularly among those who were displaced, was very alarming, and triggered movement. He hoped the CNDP would understand that "this is not the answer", and that the Mission would act against any effort to take over a city or population centre by force.

Responding to an enquiry about people displaced since last Saturday, Mr. Doss said there were 20,000 people in the Kibumba camp, "quite a few" of whom had left, and had been displaced for a second and third time. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs put the total number at 100,000 internally displaced persons; the World Health Organization figure was "somewhat higher". Either way, internally displaced persons were living in appalling conditions and it had been difficult to get relief supplies to them, which was "all the more reason" to stop the fighting. Government units were around Goma and a nearby town that controlled a main road into that city, and Rutshuru and Masisi. Their capacity and effectiveness varied, which was an issue, since the Mission was there to support -- not substitute -- Government forces.

Taking another query, he said there had been rebel efforts to reach Rutshuru, where there was a MONUC base, which would be reinforced if troops could be spared. As far as he knew, rebels had not taken the area; however, they were creating "panic, confusion and displacement".

Regarding his concern about another "ethnic cleansing" in the region, he said there was "a lot of danger", but he did not want to sound alarmist. When there were such tensions among groups who felt particularly affected -- most displaced persons were from one particular ethnic group -- obviously there were great dangers. In his experience in other conflicts: "if one is not careful, perceptions can become reality", and with that, accidents could happen. He had requested the Secretary-General and the African Union to be engaged in the process. He hoped together to find ways to reduce tensions, return to the agreements -- including the so-called Nairobi communiqué, which committed the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda to certain measures -- and set up an independent verification mechanism. Some autonomous verification would be useful in quickly verifying or denying allegations. The situation was tense on the border and he urged working through diplomatic channels to get the dialogue back on track.

To civilian criticism that the United Nations was not doing enough, he responded that the Mission had deployed every means available to protect civilians and prevent attacks against major cities and routes. The Mission could not have "a soldier behind every tree, on every road or in every market". Already, its efforts to monitor the situation through some 50 mobile and company bases were encountering re-supply problems. Pulling back would generate criticism that they were abandoning the focus, which was why he had asked the Council for additional resources. Separation zones were not the final answer, but they would help reduce fighting among the various groups, notably the CNDP. Protection was the number one priority, but there were limits to what the Mission could do with what it had.

Asked whether Rwanda was involved in the current fighting, and if the Security Council had "let him down" by refusing to give him needed troops, he said first that the Government had raised the number of allegations and asked the Mission to activate the verification mechanism, which had been done. He was waiting for the report, which he would present to the two Governments. Rwanda could also make use of the mechanism, if it had allegations of Congolese support for the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), for example.

He said the Security Council had not refused his request, but rather asked for more details and a special report. Some of that information had been given. There would be a special report by the Secretary-General early next month, and Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Alain Le Roy would brief the Council this afternoon. It was also not just a matter of more troops, but of better capabilities, more mobility, and special operations capacity beyond what the Mission currently had. He would like more police units. The Council was well seized of his requests and aware of the difficulties. He hoped it could authorize additional support.

To a question on whether United Nations tanks were moving away from certain areas, he said the Mission had moved units around and, due to worry that those units were leaving for good, it had encountered difficulties with local populations in Goma and Rutshuru.

Asked about the possibility for "Artemis" type of solution, he said the idea had surfaced. He had put the needs on the table, and it would be up to the Secretary-General and the Security Council to decide the way forward. An adjunct force required good coordination, and tended to be a short-term stabilization effort. That ideally would be done through the United Nations tomorrow.

As to whether there had been evacuations of United Nations personnel, he said there had been no evacuations of people out of the country. The Mission had asked people in Goma and other places to stay at home, and had relocated people who were in exposed areas.

Responding to a question on the reported use of child soldiers, he said there had been an allegation of that. One of the South African units was following a report that the CNDP was holding child soldiers. The Mission raided the holding place and found 13 youths held there against their will. They were abductees, who were to become child soldiers. They were handed over to child welfare agencies.

To a question on whether Kibumba fallen to the rebels, he said he had no reports to confirm that.

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