UN Chief Calls for Robust Special Force for Congo

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Tuesday for the Security Council to authorize a new muscular intervention force that could conduct offensive operations in the Congo's troubled eastern region.

In a briefing to the council, Ban recommended a special force that would be part of the existing United Nations peacekeeping operation in Congo, known as MONUSCO. The U.N. peacekeepers have been criticized for doing little to stop M23 rebels from sweeping through eastern Congo and seizing the key city of Goma in November.

"The security situation remains fragile - and demands urgent actions," Ban told the council.

The council is expected to approve the peace-enforcement force, part of a peace deal signed last month by 11 nations in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The intervention brigade would be allowed to conduct offensive operations against all armed groups, with or without the Congolese national army.

The United Nations has at least 17,700 U.N. peacekeepers and 1,400 international police in mineral-rich eastern Congo, which has been engulfed in fighting since the 1994 Rwanda genocide. The M23 rebel group that formed last year is allegedly backed by Rwanda and Uganda.

Fighting displaced nearly a million people in North Kivu province alone late last year, leaving a total of 2.6 million displaced people in Congo, according to the U.N.

After a lull, heavy fighting has resumed in North Kivu. The security situation has been complicated by a split last week in the M23 movement over a leadership struggle. The factions are now fighting each other, creating a power vacuum in M23 strongholds.

In a report to the council last week, Ban said the intervention brigade would consist of three infantry battalions and support elements, and would be deployed for an initial period of one year. He said it should have a mandate to prevent the expansion of armed groups and neutralize them so government authority can be restored in the east.

Diplomats have said most troops for the new brigade are expected to come from countries in southern Africa.

Ban also plans to appoint a new special envoy to Congo soon. Last month, the current U.N. envoy, Roger Meece, said the existing U.N. mission was designed as a traditional peacekeeping operation for a post-conflict environment, but has instead found itself engulfed in active conflict, so another "military force or brigade" was needed to help enforce peace.

The U.N. is also grappling with reports of mass rape by troops on both sides of the conflict, which Ban addressed Tuesday at a press conference.

"Of course, peace and stability will be the key concerns and priority - but to have peace and security, we need to protect the civilian population, particularly women and girls whose human rights have been abused," Ban said. "We will do our best, our utmost efforts, to eliminate this practice."

Human Rights Watch said in a report last month that Congolese government soldiers and M23 rebels "raped scores of women and committed other war crimes during the rebels' occupation of Goma." U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous has said the U.N. has confirmed 126 rapes, identified many of the perpetrators and urged Congolese authorities to prosecute them.

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