- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

NEW YORK — Helicopter gunship-backed U.N. forces killed as many as 60 Congolese guerrillas yesterday in a fierce firefight that officials here said illustrated the increasingly violent nature of U.N. peacekeeping.

It was the greatest death toll of any engagement in the six-year-old U.N. mission to Congo, but other battles in recent years in Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Sierra Leone had been just as bloody.

Wire service reports from Kinshasa, Congo, said about 240 mainly Pakistani peacekeepers opened fire after coming under attack from tribal militiamen near the village of Loga, 20 miles north of Bunia in Congo’s Ituri province.

Col. Dominique Demange, the spokesman for the U.N. forces in Congo, was quoted as saying the peacekeepers called in air support and that between 50 and 60 militia members were killed. The U.N. forces suffered two wounded.

The militiamen had been accused of a wave of looting and arson in the area that left dozens dead and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes. They also were suspected in the killing of nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers in a carefully planned ambush last week.

In New York, U.N. officials said the firefight was not retaliation for the deaths of the Bangladeshis but was likely the result of a decision to engage with the rebel forces more robustly.

They said the force involved in the battle also included troops from South Africa and Nepal and that the helicopter gunship was provided by India.

Spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the operation had been “aimed at flushing out militia members and dismantling a local headquarters” of a group called the Nationalist Integrationist Front.

“We just got opened up on, and with a fairly serious variety of ordnance,” said Nick Birnback, a spokesman for the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York. “We returned fire and called in close air support and defended ourselves.”

Nevertheless, the officials said, the world body’s blue-helmeted peacekeepers are not normally called on for such fierce fighting.

“On some level, you could say every time we have to fire, things didn’t go the way we wanted,” one U.N. official said. “But this was not unexpected.”

The Congo peacekeeping mission, which goes by its French acronym MONUC, has been deployed since late 1999, and Ituri province in eastern Congo always has been a hot spot. Officials said the fighting had increased in the past month.

Jean-Marie Guehenno, the undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, told editors and reporters at The Washington Times last week that he anticipated resistance from “spoilers” in the region.

“It’s a sign that we are taking a stronger military posture in the east,” he said after the Bangladeshis were ambushed.

“As we take that posture, those groups who are afraid that Congo might go to the tipping point where peace is an irreversible process will make every effort to reverse that. I expect some difficult times. A Congo at peace is not the best thing for their own individual interests.”

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