May 22, 2006

Congo army fights on a shoestring in lawless east

By David Lewis

SEJABU, Congo (Reuters) - The Congolese army commander
screamed over the radio for more ammunition as mortars pounded
down and machinegun fire rattled around him.

Several hours later about 20 mostly barefoot villagers --
offered as porters to the army by a local chief -- trudged
toward the front line with mortar tubes and cases of ammunition
balanced on their heads.

"We can't fight properly without civilians," said an army
officer walking with the villagers, urging them to push on to
the front 16 km (10 miles) up through steep hills.

"We have no trucks or tanks so we have to use them to help
carry our equipment," he said.

Democratic Republic of Congo's fledgling army, backed by
the U.N.'s largest peacekeeping mission, is trying to pacify
the mineral-rich east ahead of long-awaited elections on July
30, the first democratic polls in four decades.

Some 1,000 Bangladeshi, Pakistani and South African U.N.
peacekeepers are backing 3,000 Congolese troops in an offensive
to regain control of Tchei, a rebel stronghold in Ituri
district where militia violence has killed tens of thousands
since 1999.

The U.N. blue berets followed at a distance as Congolese
soldiers led the ground assault on the town over the weekend.
Fighting with heavy machinegun and mortar fire has so far
killed 32 rebels, according to the army.

U.N. helicopter gunships known as Firebirds hovered
overhead, communicating with the troops in English, French,
Bangladeshi, Swahili and Lingala, airlifting in more ammunition
and evacuating wounded soldiers.


Previous operations have been compromised by
ill-disciplined Congolese soldiers, some of whom mutinied and
attacked the U.N. after being sent to the front without enough
ammunition or food in the last attempt to take Tchei in March.

The poorly-paid soldiers are notorious for looting and
harassing people they have been sent to protect.

"They are not paid. They are not fed. But they are sent off
to fight on foot," a senior U.N. peacekeeper told Reuters. "Of
course they are going to live off the back of the population."

July's presidential and legislative polls are meant to draw
a line under a war which was officially declared over in 2003
but sparked a humanitarian crisis that has killed 4 million
people since the conflict began in 1998.

Instability in the east and the slow pace of security
sector reform have complicated preparations for the polls.

Diplomats have repeatedly pressured the authorities in
Kinshasa to ensure that money released from the central bank
for paying army salaries and training men is not stolen before
it reaches foot soldiers in the east.

The International Crisis Group think-tank warned in a
report earlier this year that the army "could collapse again
quickly if faced with a serious threat" and said the leaders of
some former factions were deliberately keeping it weak to
preserve their ability to destabilize the country.