UN Troops Replace French Force in Congo's Bunia

By Dino Mahtani, Reuters, Washington Post, Saturday 30 August 2003; 10:15 AM

BUNIA (Reuters)—Bangladeshi troops under United Nations blue helmets took over the last military entry point into the Congolese town of Bunia from French peacekeepers on Saturday amid worry by residents about their safety.

The French-led combat force, with over 1,000 troops, had been deployed in the conflict-ridden town in June to protect civilians from attacks by ethnic Hema and Lendu militia.

The handover of the camp at Saint Ave to the north of Bunia marked the last strategic entry point controlled by French forces who are expected to pull out of the war-ravaged region when their mandate expires on Monday.

“We are absolutely ready to take over our responsibilities.” Major Sayid Anwar Sabir told Reuters at the camp overlooking the surrounding hills.

“We are very optimistic that we will be able to do the job.”

Only the town's central checkpoint and airport remain to be taken. The French-led force said it was satisfied that the mission they set out to do has been completed, although they acknowledge plenty more work needs to be done.

“With attacks of towns and villages still occurring within 60 km (miles) of Bunia, a quick and effective deployment of U.N. troops into the hills will be essential to maintain order,” said Colonel Gerard Dubois, the European force spokesman.

But the withdrawal of the French is beginning to wrack the nerves of many of Bunia's war-weary residents.

“We don't know whether the Bangladeshis can do the job as we have never heard of them before. How will they communicate with people in this, a Francophone country,” said Pierre Bagaya, 45 and unemployed.

Many others are just sad to see French troops leave.

“The French guarded the population well but we are not used to these Bangladeshis. But for the moment we have confidence in them,” said Uzele Agenunga, a local villager, watching the French pack up their belongings at the camp.

A U.N. force deployed in Bunia before the French arrived failed to stop fighting in the town, but a bigger U.N. force spearheaded by the Bangladeshi troops with a stronger mandate aims to prevent bloodshed in Bunia and outlaying villages.

But the U.N. mission in Congo (MONUC) in July received an extended mandate, increasing the number of peacekeepers to 10,800 from 8,700 and allowing them to open fire to complete missions. Previously, MONUC only could open fire under immediate threat or to defend civilians in imminent danger.

The new U.N. force also has a mandate to deploy throughout Ituri, a province roughly the size of Sierra Leone, to restore security there. Over 50,000 people have died from clashes involving militia in the surrounding mineral rich province of Ituri since 1999.

Continuing clashes outside the town of Bunia are a stain on Congo's new government of national reconciliation that has officially put an end to over four years of war which has claimed over three million lives.