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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 May, 2003, 20:49 GMT 21:49 UK
UK troops may go to DR Congo
UN peacekeepers in Bunia
The UN has been unable to halt clashes in the area
The Ministry of Defence is considering a United Nations' request for British soldiers to be sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of a multi-national deployment of troops.

British officials say what is being talked about is a short-term operation to fill the gap until South African and Bangladeshi troops arrive in July or August to reinforce the existing UN contingent.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell told BBC News the international community had been "distracted by Iraq" but must now turn its attention to the Congo.

A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman told BBC News Online: "We are still discussing with the UN what our contribution will be."

Gold district

There are concerns over the potential for genocide in DR Congo after civilians fleeing into Uganda reported widespread atrocities, including cannibalism, by ethnic militias.

Those fears have risen after the discovery by UN workers of the bodies of more than 230 people killed in clashes between rival militias in the town of Bunia.

Two groups, Hemas, traditionally cattle-raisers, and Lendus, predominantly farmers, have been in conflict for centuries for land and other resources in the area.

UNREST IN ITURI REGION

The rivalry has become more bloody because the Ituri district around Bunia is rich with gold.

Neighbouring nations involved in the civil war - Uganda and Rwanda - armed both sides as proxy militias.

Mr Campbell accused the surrounding countries of being concerned only "with trying to extract as much financial advantage as they possibly could through pillaging the diamonds and other resources".

The clashes in the area around Bunia erupted soon after the 9,000 strong Ugandan forces withdrew from Bunia about two weeks ago, as part of the peace deal in DR Congo.

A party of French military observers is now in Bunia to investigate the possible deployment of a multi-national force.

And the European Union said on Monday it was considering a UN request to send peacekeeping troops.

France has been asked to lead this force and provide a battalion with up to 1,000 troops, but has insisted that other nations join the force and the deployment be for a limited period.

French observers in Bunia
The French may lead a European force to the area

UK prime minister Tony Blair told MPs on Wednesday it was "very important that the (UN) force is properly led and properly supported because otherwise we will revisit... the terrors of a decade or so ago".

And former international development secretary Clare Short later said Monuc (the UN operation in DR Congo) needed additional forces in the east, where militias responsible for the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda in 1994 were still operating.

"It can be moved forward very quickly with just a bit more international attention with Britain playing its proper role," Ms Short, who quit the UK cabinet last week over the handling of post-war Iraq, told BBC News Online.

"We have been strongly involved in the Congo and I am sure my successor and others will continue to be engaged."

Militia leaders, meanwhile, say they will treat any French troops who go to Bunia as enemies.

A Hema group which controls Bunia, the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), says the French back Congolese President Joseph Kabila, who the UPC says is helping the Lendus.

The Lendus are the majority in Ituri but some accuse former colonial power Belgium of favouring the Hemas.




SEE ALSO:
Short urges UN action in DR Congo
21 May 03  |  Politics
In pictures: Congo town empties
16 May 03  |  Photo Gallery
Disease fear in DR Congo town
15 May 03  |  Africa


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