The first contingent of French peacekeeping troops has arrived in the embattled Congo town of Bunia. Local residents welcomed the troops, but there are concerns the size of the force and its U.N. mandate might limit its ability to end the violence of recent weeks. Reporter Nicole Itano is in Bunia, and spoke to VOA's Al Pessin in London about the day's developments.
PESSIN: Nicole, I understand the first contingent of French peacekeepers arrived in Bunia today. Can you tell us what happened and what the local reaction was?
ITANO: Well, you're right. The first two planes of French logistic teams arrived today around 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. By about 10:00 a.m. they'd made it to the MONUC (U.N. Mission to Congo) headquarters, the headquarters of the U.N. mission here. Before last month, they had just a few military observers here. And, now, they've got a full-scale mission. And they were greeted there by a large crowd of Congolese who cheered, Bunia is free! Bunia is free!
PESSIN: Now, this is the first contingent of planning and logistical troops. How many troops from how many countries are expected overall, and what are they expected to do when they get there?
ITANO: Well, there will be about 1,400troops in the international coalition here. About 800 of those will be French and it's unclear exactly who will make up the rest of those. But we do hear that the United Kingdom has agreed to send some as have South Africa and a few other nations.
PESSIN: Now, the U.N. has been criticized because the small mission that they've had there has not been able to stop the horrible violence that we've seen in the last several weeks. Will this force be strong enough to do that?
ITANO: Well, it's unclear at this point. One of the problems is that the mandate issued to the new troops by the United Nations' Security Council only really gives them authority to work within the city confines of Bunia. And a lot of what's happening is happening right now outside of the city. So, while the French commander today said that they think they have enough troops in the current situation to deal with Bunia, they don't think that they have enough to deal with the surrounding areas. The UPC, which is the group that controls Bunia right now, they've moved most of their troops to positions outside of the city, along the main roads coming into the city. And there's concern that they will use this to cut off access to the city and to particularly cut off returnees from the other ethnic group, the Lendu ethnic group, who were kicked out of the city last month.
PESSIN: What are the latest reports about the situation? Up to a couple of days ago, we were hearing about awful scenes of massacres, hacking-off of body parts, and indiscriminate killings of one group by another. What's going on now?
ITANO: Well, the situation within the city of Bunia has stabilized. We're not getting a lot of new reports of casualties. But in the hospitals there are still quite a few people who are recovering from gunshot wounds and machete wounds from the violence a month ago. And we don't know what's going on outside of the city. It's a big concern. The U.N. doesn't have any observers there. There's not any reliable information. There aren't even any refugees that are coming in that can tell us what's happening. So there is a lot of concern that atrocities may be continuing outside of the city.
PESSIN: You mentioned that people were chanting, Bunia is free! as the initial French soldiers arrived. What is the local expectation? Do people expect the United Nations, perhaps, to be able to do more with this force than it seems it'll be able to do?
ITANO: I think that there is a sense that the French and MONUC troops here are impartial-that they are outside the ethnic conflicts between the different militias here. But I do think that there is a bit of wariness. The MONUC troops didn't do anything when hundreds of people were massacred last month. And while, people would like to see and like to believe that this means that peace will come here. There are a lot of people who are not certain that the French troops will do any more than the troops who were already here last month.