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UN, Congo Troops Launch Patrols to Protect Civilians, Pressure Rebels

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo this week launched joint military patrols with United Nations peacekeepers in the troubled east of the country. The patrols are due to restore law and order where it is lacking. But they are also being seen as a first step in applying direct pressure on Rwandan rebels to leave the Congo.

Details are scarce, but the United Nations spokesman Mamadou Ba, in Congo, confirmed Wednesday that the mission's

peacekeepers had been patrolling alongside government soldiers in Walungu, a lawless town in the east of the country.

An unknown number of peacekeepers have joined thousands of government soldiers in Walungu, which is just to the

southwest of the lakeside town of Bukavu and situated in an area teeming with various armed groups.

The patrols, Mr. Ba said, were intended to protect civilians and stop endless human rights violations endured by civilians.

But the joint patrols are also being seen as the first step towards larger joint U.N. and government operations aimed at

restoring law and order and, ultimately, ensuring that all foreign fighters leave Congo.

Although he gave no details of an ultimatum, Mr. Ba said that the Rwandan rebels were being given one last chance to

disarm and leave the Congo voluntarily.

Thousands of extremist Hutu rebels fled Rwanda after they took part in the 1994 massacre of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. For the last decade, they have been at the heart of Congo's conflict, at times fighting alongside government soldiers but also partially prompting two Rwandan invasions.

Although some have voluntarily disarmed and returned to Rwanda, an estimated 10,000 remain in eastern Congo,

where they live off the local population and are still considered a risk by Kigali.

A senior UN official expressed hope Wednesday that the joint patrols would be a first step towards establishing the

government's authority in the east and sending a clear message to the rebels that they must disarm or be disarmed.

But in a statement issued recently, the rebels accused the U.N. and government of preparing an attack that would force them to go home. If such an attack took place, a spokesman said, they would defend themselves.

Congo's transitional government is struggling to restore peace following a five-year war that pulled in six neighboring countries and killed three million people, mostly from hunger and disease.