UNITED NATIONS, Nov 3 (Reuters) - Several top U.N. officials vehemently rejected suggestions on Monday that U.N. peacekeepers have failed to protect civilians in eastern Congo, where recent fighting is causing a humanitarian catastrophe.
Aid agencies say tens of thousands of civilians are roaming the countryside unprotected, in need of shelter, food, water and medical care.
Some of the displaced have accused U.N. peacekeepers of failing to fulfill a mandate to protect them from violence and looting, not just by armed rebel groups but also by Congolese government forces.
The head of U.N. peacekeeping, Alain Le Roy, dismissed suggestions that U.N. peacekeepers in Congo, known by their French acronym MONUC, had failed to carry out their duty.
"We are doing our utmost," he told reporters in New York by video link from Congo, where he was meeting with senior officials from the largest U.N. peacekeeping operation.
He said MONUC, which has some 17,000 troops across Congo, was doing everything possible to fulfill its mandate in as robust a manner as possible with limited manpower over eastern Congo, a region one and a half times the size of France.
Earlier French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said MONUC needed to get tougher in protecting civilians from violence. Le Roy said he spoke with Kouchner, who said he agreed MONUC needed to be "more robust" but also needed reinforcement.
Le Roy said Congolese authorities, including those in North Kivu, acknowledged that MONUC had helped prevent renegade Congolese Tutsi Gen. Laurent Nkunda's CNDP rebels from seizing more territory than they already have in eastern Congo.
"The authorities on the ground recognize that without MONUC, many other areas would have been taken," he said. "The criticism (of) MONUC is in many cases I must say unfair."
Nkunda's troops have been poised to take Goma, the capital of North Kivu, since last week, but have been complying with a ceasefire that both Le Roy and Alan Doss, the head of MONUC, described as fragile.
NO ADDITIONAL TROOPS
A January peace deal collapsed in August in Congo, where a 1998-2003 war and resulting humanitarian disaster have killed an estimated 5.4 million people, mostly through hunger and disease.
With the crisis deepening, Doss asked the U.N. Security Council a month ago for additional troops and military hardware to help him deal with Nkunda's advance.
But Doss' deputy, Ross Mountain, said it appeared "that we are not getting those reinforcements immediately."
As a result, MONUC will have to redeploy troops protecting civilians in other parts of the country to help secure Goma. This, Mountain said, will expose those civilians to attacks by more than 20 other armed groups across the region.
In the meantime, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has launched a diplomatic drive to help back up what he described as a U.N. "thin blue line against the chaos."
Ban said Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, two leaders seen as essential to resolving the crisis, had expressed a willingness to meet him "sometime this weekend or early next week."
He also announced he was nominating former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo as a special envoy to seek a political settlement and was reappointing Senegalese Gen. Babacar Gaye to command MONUC forces after Spanish Lt. Gen. Vicente Diaz de Villegas lasted just seven weeks in the job.
(Editing by Patricia Zengerle)
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