DR Congo

UN steps up efforts to free Nepal troops in Congo

By David Lewis
KINSHASA, June 5 (Reuters) - U.N. hostage crisis experts have joined local community chiefs in eastern Congo in delicate negotiations to try to free seven Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers held by militia for over a week, U.N. sources said on Monday.

Specialist negotiators have been flown in from U.N. headquarters in New York in a bid to advance the secretive talks with the militia fighters who seized the Nepalese on May 28 in the violent Ituri district of Democratic Republic of Congo.

The hostage situation poses a difficult problem for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo -- the world's biggest -- as it struggles to pacify the vast, war-scarred central African country ahead of historic elections scheduled for July 30.

U.N. officials have ruled out paying any ransom for the kidnapped Nepalese soldiers and initial contacts with the Lendu militiamen led by warlord Peter Karim have proved unsuccessful.

Lendu community leaders, who were helping to try to resolve the hostage situation, collected $500 locally to offer for the kidnapped Nepalese but their separate initiative was spurned on Friday by the kidnappers who said the money was not enough.

"Things went a little sour last week and there was little contact over the weekend but talks continue," said a U.N. source, who asked not to be named.

"There is a special negotiating team from New York. They have special training in negotiations but they know nothing about the local context," he added.

Kemal Saiki, chief U.N. spokesman in Congo, said contacts with the militia were continuing but declined to give details.

A delegation of U.N. Security Council ambassadors is due in Congo at the end of this week to discuss the upcoming elections, which will be the country's first free polls in four decades of war, chaos and dictatorship.

President Joseph Kabila is running for re-election against some 30 challengers in the presidential and parliamentary vote.

The elections are intended to try to build a future of stability in the wake of Congo's 1998-2003 war, which triggered a humanitarian crisis that has killed some four million people.

MILITARY OPTION?

One local Ituri source, who is close to Karim's militia but did not want to be identified, said the warlord had reassured the U.N. that the Nepalese were still alive.

The fighters were keeping the hostages on the move in the remote district, which has areas of thick forest and has been the scene of heavy fighting in recent months between Congolese troops backed by U.N. peacekeepers and militia gangs.

Ethnic violence and fighting over mining sites and over control of local extortion rackets have killed an estimated more than 60,000 people in Ituri since 1999.

Initial reports said Karim's militiamen were demanding a ransom of $20,000 for each Nepalese peacekeeper.

Local officials in Ituri said they believed the peacekeepers would eventually be released.

"These people are not at risk unless the U.N. makes a stupid mistake," one official said. "It may take days but these people will be freed."

In recent months, U.N. peacekeepers and Congolese troops, backed by helicopter gunships, have been storming militia bases in Ituri to impose government control over the lawless region.

"Karim must think the he has the U.N. over a barrel, otherwise he would have released (the Nepalese) by now," one diplomat in Kinshasa told Reuters.

"There is no military option for now. But, as time goes by, they will have to start discussing it," the diplomat added.

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