Representatives of the French force and five British military officers planned to meet with the Hema Union of Patriotic Congolese militia, which now controls Bunia, at the U.N. mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo, or MONUC, headquarters. The Hema is expected to surrender control of the town.
“It’s what we have been waiting for,” resident Dieudonne Macheka told Reuters. “The new force should be different from MONUC because it has a mandate that should allow it to intervene. They can act with force if faced with resistance. That’s why we have more confidence in them.”
MONUC withdrew Uruguayan military observers from the eastern town of Kanyabayonga after two observers were killed. On June 2, the U.N. Security Council approved the international emergency force led by France, which will replace the Uruguayan peacekeepers.
“Because this will be a peace enforcement mission, they will be better armed than are the Uruguayans,” said Jean-Marie Guehenno, the U.N. undersecretary general for peacekeeping operations. “They will have far greater means to impose peace, to stabilize Bunia.”
The armed French-led force will focus on Bunia, where rival ethnic militias have killed more than 400 people in recent weeks. The United Nations reports that kidnappings, robberies and rapes happen daily in the town of 200,000 near the Ugandan border.
The French contingent that arrived Friday will use the Bunia airport as its base and secure the area for the arrival of up to 1,400 troops. The force will have the use of fighter jets and will be led by a French commander, Gen. Jean-Paul Thonier.
“For the next 10 days, there will be six to seven flights a day bringing more French troops,” Nana Rosine Ngangoue, a spokeswoman for MONUC, told the Associated Press. “This will lead to the deployment of half the French contingent in the multinational force.”
France will provide 1,000 troops, and the rest of the force — which is expected to include troops from Canada, South Africa, Senegal, Nigeria and Pakistan — will serve under French command and U.N. auspices. Both the United Nations and the European Union approved sending troops for the three-month mission. A follow-up U.N. mission is also planned.
The majority tribal militia, called the Lendu, and the minority Hema began fighting in Bunia in May after some 6,000 troops from neighboring Uganda withdrew from the Congo, a move that came as part of a peace accord with Congo’s government intended to help end the country’s nearly five years of civil war.
Tribal fighting has killed more than 500 people throughout the country over the past month. The United Nations estimates that some 50,000 have been killed since 1999.
As the fighting raged for the past five years, mass disease and starvation have killed an estimated 3 million people. This week, humanitarian agencies distributed food to 10,000 people in Bunia.
Guehenno said the mission will try to identify those responsible for the ethnic massacres in Bunia, as well as the killing of U.N. military observers. He said troops will also bring to justice commanders who have reportedly forced children into military service.
“I have seen with my own eyes children who must be no older than 11 years carrying weapons that are bigger than they are, drugged before being sent into combat,” Guehenno said. “There has been a disgraceful manipulation of innocent children, and those responsible must not go unpunished.”
The U.N. mission is also asking other countries in the region to help stabilize the nation’s political situation, end outside military support to militant groups and stop the looting of the Congo’s natural resources.
“Of course the council is sometimes led to adopt an approach that might be called ground-based, namely deploying the Blue Helmets, authorizing a multinational force such as in Bunia,” the mission’s leader, Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere of France, said. “But none of this has any hope of succeeding unless there is a solid political process.”