July 8, 2006

Congo militiamen free Nepali UN peacekeepers

By David Lewis

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Five Nepali U.N. peacekeepers held
hostage for more than a month by militia fighters in eastern
Democratic Republic of Congo were released unharmed and without
conditions on Saturday, the United Nations said.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Congo (MONUC) said the
five soldiers, part of a group of Nepali blue helmets captured
after a May 27 clash with militia in northeast Ituri district,
were released safe and sound by their captors.

Although the release was a relief for the 17,000-strong
U.N. contingent in the vast central African state, violence by
rebels and renegade militia groups in the east has dogged
preparations for historic elections due to be held on July 30.

One Nepali soldier was killed, three were wounded and seven
were captured in the May gunbattle with fighters loyal to Peter
Karim, a warlord from the local Lendu ethnic group. The
militiamen released two of the Nepalis on June 27.

"While MONUC mourns the loss of the Nepalese peacekeeper,
it should like to express its gratitude to the local community
and its representatives for their commitment and efforts to
secure the release of its seven peacekeepers," the U.N.
statement said.

A militia source also confirmed the five had been freed and
said they were brought back from the bush by a delegation of
U.N. negotiators and leaders of the local Lendu community.

The U.N. statement said the Nepali soldiers freed on
Saturday were reunited with their colleagues at their base in
Kwandroma in Ituri district.

Karim's militia had been demanding cash and freedom for
some of his fighters held by the government.

But the U.N. statement called the release "unconditional."


U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had led appeals for the
release of the Nepalis but U.N. officials always insisted no
ransom would be paid.

The upcoming July 30 presidential and parliamentary polls
in the Congo will be the first free elections there in 40

They are intended to be the culmination of internationally
backed peace accords that ended a 1998-2003 war which sucked in
six neighboring countries.

But violence has continued in several areas, especially the
mineral-rich east, and rights groups estimate 4 million
Congolese have been killed since 1998 through conflict, hunger
and disease in one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

U.N. peacekeepers, thinly stretched across a country the
size of western Europe, have been struggling to contain rebel
and militia activity in the east alongside a fledgling
Congolese national army criticized as corrupt, violent and

The run-up to the elections, in which President Joseph
Kabila is standing along with more than 30 contenders, has been
marred by hostile rhetoric from candidates, attacks on
journalists and government attempts to muzzle media critics.

A Congolese journalist who had criticized the government
was killed by unidentified gunmen at his home in Kinshasa early
on Saturday, a day after foreign donors called on the
authorities to guarantee press freedoms ahead of the elections.