By Anne Mugisa
The UN and African Union have approved a 4,000-strong hybrid neutral military force to be stationed in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The new development comes even as the DRC rebel group M23 pulls out of two towns captured from the government troops recently, following a deal brokered by Uganda in a flurry of diplomatic activity.
Besides Goma, the rebels had also seized Sake, a strategic town on the way to South Kivu province and its capital Bukavu.
The force under the UN mandate will keep peace but also engage in combat if any groups decided to destabilise the area, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. A UN military envoy is on the way to Kampala for consultations to ensure that “the concept is understood.,” according to the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador James Mugume.
Currently, the UN peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) in Congo is made up of 20,000 troops, but its mandate has purely been to protect civilians and not to fight. This is because the contributing countries insist that their forces should not engage in combat.
This, however, is set to change with the proposed hybrid force. The current MONUSCO force is to be reduced to 16,000 and beefed up with the 4,000 African Union forces which could engage in combat if need be.
According to Mugume, the two-mandate hybrid force will also tackle anybody else who will try to destabilise peacein the region. Several armed groups are operating in the Eastern DRC. They include the Mai-Mai and the FDLR (Interahamwe).
Mugume said several African countries have pledged to contribute the forces and the UN has approved about $150m for that hybrid mission for the first year and would be revised after the first year as need arises. The money is part of the $1.4b approved by the UN for MONUSCO.
Mugume said that deployment will depend on how fast the African countries contributed troops but added that “we could deploy by January if all goes well”.
The M23 military commander, Sultani Makenga, said on Tuesday the M23 had begun transferring arms, provisions and medical supplies from Goma to the Rutshuru territory north of the city, an area along the Uganda and Rwanda border that has been their main stronghold since launching their uprising in April,
The Kinshasha government yesterday alleged that during the withdrawal, the M23 were engaged in massive looting of Goma
The Red Cross also reported that it had buried 62 people whose bodies were found on the streets of Goma in the days following its capture by the M23 group.
Residents said dozens of trucks carrying food and ammunition had left Goma, the main city in the Kivu region on the borders of Rwanda and Uganda which has been the flashpoint for past wars in central Africa’s largest country.
At stake is the control of Kivu’s vast mineral wealth, which include cobalt, copper, diamonds, gold and coltan, a key component in mobile phones.
On the streets of Goma, life appeared to be returning to normal, AFP correspondents said. Shops were open, taxis were running and while there were a few rebels posted at junctions, their presence has been scaled down considerably.
A local official said residents had reported that the trucks were heading towards Rutshuru and Rumangabo, both rebel-held towns north of Goma. But the M23 were still occupying the town of Sake, which lies on the road towards Bukavu.
The rebels had made a string of demands on the Kinshasa government as a prerequisite for their withdrawal.
Among them was the release of opposition standard-bearer Etienne Tshisekedi, a former prime minister, who has been under unofficial house arrest since declaring victory in flawed elections last year that were officially won by Kabila. They also demanded direct talks with the president and the dissolution of the electoral commission.
The revolt against the DRC government has raised the risk of all-out war in a region dogged by nearly two decades of conflict that has killed about five million people.
The rebellion erupted in April when the M23 mutinied and broke away from the DR Congo army, complaining that a 2009 deal to end a previous conflict had not been fully implemented. The rebels captured Goma on November 20 after Congolese soldiers withdrew.
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Congo rebels leaving Goma, Sake