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EU's Congo Force Starts Mission on Defensive


The European Union's military force in the Democratic Republic of Congo has begun its mission on the defensive. Senior EU political and military officials insisted Thursday that the European soldiers were in Africa to ensure elections take place in a free and fair environment and not just protect expatriates.

Just 250 soldiers from European Union force being dispatched to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they will help police upcoming elections, have arrived so far. But the mission is already on the defensive.

Senior political and military officials from the EU went to great length on Thursday to convince skeptical Congolese that the force was in their country to do more than protect and evacuate expatriates if there was trouble.

The force will act as an extra guarantee for free and fair elections and would be there to help anyone in danger, German General Karlheinz Viereck, the force's top commander, told journalists.

A total of 800 European soldiers will be in position in Kinshasa by the time millions of Congolese vote in presidential and parliamentary elections on July 30.

Another 1,200 men will be stationed in nearby Gabon, where they are meant to act as a deterrent against anyone questioning the results of the election, which is meant to be the former Belgian colony's first free vote in over 40 years.

Despite three years of official peace and the world's largest U.N. peacekeeping mission, violence continues in much of Congo's east.

The build up to the polls has been increasingly tense, with some suggesting the international community has already decided who it would like to see president and rhetoric between candidates becoming hostile.

But Aldo Ajello, the EU's envoy for Africa's Great Lakes region, insisted that there were no hidden agendas in European nations sending soldiers to Congo during the electoral period.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission had asked for assistance in providing security and the EU was responding to that request and would ensure the Congolese could vote freely, he said.

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