GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - In lawless eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a new U.N. force is trying a different strategy for keeping the peace: going on the attack.
The Force Intervention Brigade has in recent days seen its first real action in an operation to keep rebels away from the city of Goma, near Congo's border with Rwanda. On Wednesday, one Tanzanian peacekeeper was killed and three other brigade members injured.
Created by the U.N. Security Council earlier this year, the unit represents an aggressive step up for U.N. peacekeeping operations in the region, which for years have been criticized for inaction and failing to protect civilians.
In the past, in Congo and elsewhere, peacekeeping missions usually saw U.N. troops use force only in self-defense or to protect non-combatants. The new 3,000-strong brigade has a specific mandate for "targeted offensive operations" to "neutralize" and disarm rebel groups. Part of MONUSCO, the existing U.N. peacekeeping mission with 20,000 personnel spread across the vast central African state, the brigade is made up of contingents from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi.
But will the new troops help or hinder efforts to bring peace?
On the streets of Goma, a trading hub on Lake Kivu, many people are angry with the existing mission for not doing enough to protect them from either the Congolese army or insurgent and militia groups that prey on civilians, raping, looting and killing.
"If MONUSCO does nothing, we'll take up our machetes and chase them out. If they don't tackle the rebels, we'll do something to them," motorcycle taxi driver Bienvenu Musoka told Reuters as a crowd jostled and heckled outside a meeting calling for protests against the new brigade.
As white armored vehicles lumbered through Goma's dilapidated streets on a recent U.N. patrol, a voice crackled over the radio warning troops to "watch out for stone-throwing, guys." The blue-helmeted soldiers were greeted by hostile stares and gestures from local inhabitants.
The disillusion is not hard to fathom. Rights groups point to a number of massacres and abuses of civilians in eastern Congo over the last decade even though armed U.N. peacekeepers were in nearby bases. When well-armed fighters from a rebel group known as M23 swept into Goma in November after routing Congolese government forces, Indian and South African U.N. troops did not stop them. M23 eventually withdrew under international pressure, but the debacle fueled resentment among residents.
Locals want the new force to be much tougher.
"We want MONUSCO and the brigade to react. Ban Ki-moon (the U.N. Secretary-General) consoles us, tells us to wait whilst they formulate a strategy. That's because it's not his wife being raped, not his children who are dying," said Willy Mulumba, a small trader in one of Goma's chaotic markets.
That history means the new U.N. brigade starts operations facing a risky dilemma.
"If it fails (to bring peace) there will be a backlash, and that's going to be bad for Congo, and will discredit the U.N.," said Thierry Vircoulon, project director for International Crisis Group in Central Africa.
But if it imposes peace by force it risks stoking underlying tensions.
"With this offensive mandate MONUSCO is, even more than it was before, a party to the conflict," Said Tariq Riebl, Oxfam's humanitarian co-coordinator in Goma.
Eastern Congo has long been one of Africa's bloodiest battle fields. The roots of its current conflict lie in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, where Hutu soldiers and militia killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Tutsi rebels led by Paul Kagame toppled the Hutu government and sent those responsible for the genocide fleeing into eastern Congo along with two million Hutu refugees. Kagame became Rwanda's president and pursued the "genocidaires", many of whom remain in Congo and fight as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
Two civil wars have ensued, both launched from the east with Rwandan involvement. The second, from 1998 to 2003, spawned a plethora of armed groups pitted against a corrupt Congolese army. Humanitarian agencies estimate more than five million people have died in the violence since 1998, despite the presence for most of that time of a U.N. peacekeeping force.
From a small group of military observers deployed in 1999, the U.N. presence morphed into a full-fledged peacekeeping mission. In the early days, its mandates - the rules under which its peacekeepers are deployed - were more defensive than offensive. Blue-helmets had to protect U.N. and other personnel and civilians "under imminent threat of physical violence."
The mission has sometimes hurt itself. In the past, U.N. troops have been accused of sexual misconduct and smuggling arms and gold. The U.N. says these cases have been investigated and dealt with. As well, soldiers from Congo's army, which the U.N. is backing, have been accused of raping and killing civilians. The U.N. has threatened to halt cooperation with some Congolese units because of this.
On occasion, the U.N. has taken a more offensive approach to the rebels. After heavy fighting in 2003 between rival ethnic militias in northeast Ituri district, the Security Council authorized France to deploy a mostly French 1,400-strong combat force to protect residents there. Two years later, also in Ituri, Pakistani peacekeepers killed 50 militiamen days after nine Bangladeshi blue-helmets were killed in an ambush.
In 2006, Indian U.N. troops used helicopter gunships, heavy weapons and armored vehicles to kill dozens of advancing Tutsi rebels near Sake, north of Goma. A Congo army officer put the rebel deaths in that clash at 150.
In general, though, in Congo and elsewhere, the U.N. has been wary of "peace enforcement" ever since its involvement in Somalia in the 1990s. Appetite for proactive intervention withered after the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" incident when militia fighters shot down U.S. helicopters in Mogadishu, and killed 18 U.S. soldiers in the ensuing battle.
One reason for the new approach in Congo is the rise of the M23 rebel group, which emerged last year when former rebel fighters, who had been integrated into the Congolese army, mutinied. The group takes its name from a March 23, 2009 peace deal that ended a previous revolt.
M23 accuse Congo's government and army of failing to honor that peace pact, and of tolerating and collaborating with the Hutu FDLR fighters who they view as mortal enemies.
U.N. experts have reported that the group is backed and supplied by Rwanda. M23 and the Rwandan government fiercely reject those accusations.
The surprise capture of Goma by M23 last year left the U.N. fending off charges that its troops stood idly by. The incident increased diplomatic pressure from a number of African capitals, in particular Kinshasa, to get a new, tougher brigade approved by the U.N. Security Council.
"It was really a strong request from the Africans," a senior Western diplomat said.
But some Western powers in the Security Council feared the deployment might worsen rather than solve the violence.
"France, U.S. and UK were very skeptical," the diplomat said. "We had the impression that it would add violence to violence, that it was not 3,000 soldiers who were going to change the balance and solve the issues."
A senior U.N. official in New York confirmed the internal discussion. "The Intervention Brigade is very controversial and not everyone is sold on it," the official said.
Even as it beefed up its military power, the U.N. threw its weight behind peace talks; A U.N.-mediated peace deal was signed in February by 11 regional states, including Congo and Rwanda. But separate direct talks between M23 and Congo's government in the Ugandan capital Kampala have made little progress.
Some say negotiations may have been undermined by the new U.N. military force. "The U.N. is stuck between its aggressive mandate and peace talks, leading to a somewhat schizophrenic policy," Congo expert Jason Stearns wrote this month on his Congo Siasa blog.
Axel Queval, MONUSCO's acting head in North Kivu province, where Goma is located, sees the brigade working in tandem with political negotiations.
"The door for negotiations is always open, but if the negotiations can't work, then of course the brigade is here to put pressure on. It's a little bit of the carrot and the stick," Queval said.
Congolese authorities want the brigade to act - and fast. "My advice to the United Nations would be to move more quickly. The resolution which was voted mustn't just remain a bit of paper," said Julien Paluku, governor of North Kivu. "I think we must finish with M23, with FDLR militarily ... This is the first time the U.N. has created an offensive brigade for peacekeeping. If it fails, it's going to be bad for them."
The U.N. resolution behind the brigade foresees three infantry battalions, one artillery group and one special force and reconnaissance company under the direct command of the MONUSCO force commander.
But U.N. officials admit the brigade's deployment is still only two thirds complete. The Malawians have not yet arrived and the South African and Tanzanian contingents do not have all their equipment yet.
Wednesday's deadly skirmish has raised questions about whether the U.N. unit has the force, firepower and equipment to carry out its mandate. This is especially sensitive in South Africa, which in March saw 15 of its soldiers killed in Central African Republic during a rebel takeover there.
"The force is too small, it's not mobile enough," South African defense and military analyst Helmoed Romer Heitman told Reuters of the new brigade. South Africa's National Defence Union (SANDU), which represents military personnel, issued a statement after this week's fighting expressing concern that South African troops are backed not by their own air force's Rooivalk (Red Kestrel) attack helicopters but by the U.N.'s Ukrainian-piloted Mi-24 gunships. The Rooivalks are due to arrive in Congo in October.
The newly appointed commander for MONUSCO is Brazilian Lieutenant General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, whose previous U.N. experience involved fighting criminal gangs in the slums of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. He recognizes that his troops face a credibility test in Congo.
"We are supposed to have courage and take action, but sometimes the inaction is absolute," he told international NGOs at a meeting in July, according to minutes taken by one group present. "We must be accountable (for) it."
Dos Santos Cruz was unavailable for an interview.
Oxfam's Riebl said that even as the new brigade is being deployed, militias and warlords have been attacking local communities without the U.N. intervening. The town of Pinga, in the mineral-rich highlands of North Kivu, has changed hands between rival militias at least eight times since last year, he said. Medical charity Doctors Without Borders was forced to suspend its activities in Pinga this month because of violence and after direct threats to staff.
"We've seen atrocities and massacres committed, people being decapitated ... we're definitely talking about hundreds in the last few months. All of this has happened in a town where there is a U.N. base, which has been there permanently," Riebl said.
As the brigade steps up its operations, they will face a battle-hardened enemy.
On the road north from Goma, the final Congolese army checkpoints are followed by kilometers of deserted villages before a rebel roadblock marks the edge of M23's zone of control.
M23 leaders believe they hold the upper hand in the rugged hilly terrain they know so well. At M23's headquarters along the Congo-Uganda border, M23 President Bertrand Bisimwa told Reuters a U.N. offensive would be a "mistake". Wearing a crisp khaki suit and cowboy hat, and surrounded by fighters in camouflage and gumboots, Bisimwa said his forces would fight back.
Rwanda has also pushed back against the U.N. brigade, alleging U.N. commanders discussed "collaboration" with Hutu FDLR rebels. The U.N. has asked Rwanda for proof of this claim, which Kigali has not provided.
The M23 rebels say their soldiers are more than a match for the untested U.N. Intervention Brigade. "The Tanzanians are the toughest. But kill five South Africans and they'll pack up and go home," one rebel leader said derisively.
As a recent convoy rumbled past tumbledown shacks in Goma, a South African soldier in full battle gear summed up the feeling inside the brigade: "If (the Congolese) can find a political solution, that'll be good for us, and good for them. If not, we'll do what we've prepared to do."
Hogg reported from Goma, Charbonneau from the United Nations in New York; Additional reporting by David Lewis in Dakar, and Peroshni Govender and Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing By Richard Woods and Simon Robinson