Congo Watch: EU force shows muscle ahead of Congo polls

Friday, July 21, 2006

EU force shows muscle ahead of Congo polls

EU troops in DR Congo

Photo: French and Portuguese troops from a European Union Force perform military exercises in the Congolese capital Kinshasa July 20, 2006. The EU has sent some 1,000 soldiers to the Democratic Republic of Congo ahead of this month's presidential and parliamentary elections aimed at ending more than a decade of conflict in the central African nation. Reuters/David Lewis

July 20, 2006 Reuters report by David Lewis [via The Salon]
A European Union military force sent to Congo showed off its firepower and technology on Thursday, saying it was ready to help U.N. peacekeepers maintain security during this month's elections.

Soldiers parachuted into their Kinshasa base from helicopters before special forces teams performed a simulated hostage rescue and the force illustrated how it could quickly deploy men and armoured vehicles.

Congolese politicians, military personnel, as well as foreign and local media were also shown the unmanned surveillance planes and weaponry the force has as its disposal.

"We have tried to show you that we are credible and ready to fulfil our mission," German General Karlheinz Viereck, commander of the EU mission, told the audience after the display at N'Dodo airport.

The EU has sent some 1,000 soldiers to the Democratic Republic of Congo, meant to act as a deterrent against anyone disrupting or challenging the result of the elections.

The July 30 polls are the cornerstone of peace deals that ended Congo's 1998-2003 war, which has killed some four million people, and are billed as the former Belgian colony's first free and fair elections in over 40 years.

Despite the world's biggest U.N. peacekeeping force, voting will take place amid tension. Thousands of rebels operate in Congo's east, many candidates say the process is unfair and opposition parties are calling for demonstrations and boycotts.

"At the end of the month, my men will be ready to fulfil their task of securing the elections if there is trouble and the UN cannot deal with it," Viereck added.

FOUR-MONTH MISSION

The EU force has a four-month mission, starting the first day of voting, but will only intervene if the Congolese police and army, as well as the U.N. are unable to control violence.

Some 33 presidential candidates and nearly 10,000 parliamentary candidates will contest the polls, which are costing the international community over $400 million and are the most complicated the U.N. has ever helped organise.

Commanders have been reluctant to give details on what sort of operations the European soldiers would carry out, stressing however, that they were not in Congo to support any candidate and would do more than just evacuate expatriates.

During the demonstration, French and Portuguese special forces teams simulated a rescue mission, roping down from helicopters to free hostages in a bus before airlifting them to safety.

A Hercules C130 transport plane then flew in soldiers and armoured trucks, showing how the EU could deploy men equipment across the vast country, which is the size of Western Europe, at short notice.

Meanwhile, Belgian surveillance drones and an array of sniper rifles, machine guns and mortars were put on display.

The EU has a reserve force of 1,200 soldiers stationed in nearby Gabon but, with only one company of combat troops in Kinshasa, analysts say a successful mission would be one that does not have to act.

Some Congolese, however, believe the international community is tacitly backing incumbent President Joseph Kabila while others fear the Europeans have come ready to fight a war.

"Don't speak about war," Viereck told local journalists. "We have just showed a few options for dissuasion."

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