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Sex Scandals, Inaction Mar UN Congo Mission

The U.N. mission in Congo, known by the French acronym MONUC, is one of the largest and most expensive U.N. peacekeeping operations in the world. It is also one of the most ineffective, some critics say.

MONUC includes about 11,000 soldiers, mostly from Uruguay, Pakistan, South Africa and India. Recently, the United Nations announced another 5,000 troops would soon join the force.

It is a huge operation, but then the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of Africa's largest and most volatile countries. The mission is costing about $750 million a year.

Since 1999, MONUC has been in Congo to oversee this country's peaceful transition from virtual anarchy to democracy. Elections are slated for June of next year. It will be the first time in 40 years that Congolese people will choose their leaders in free and open elections.

Many observers here expect MONUC to play an essential role before the elections, mainly by ensuring stability in a country still reeling from five years of civil war.

But the U.N. credibility in Congo has been shaken by sex-abuse scandals and rising anger among many Congolese people, who say well-armed U.N. peacekeepers have done little to protect them from attacks by Congolese troops and former rebels who continue to mount assaults in eastern Congo.

The violence in Kanyabayonga, which reportedly killed about 30 people and sent nearly 200,000 fleeing into nearby forests, is the latest in a string of setbacks for MONUC.

In the past three years, U.N. peacekeepers have been accused of standing by while militia groups shot or hacked to death hundreds of civilians in several Congolese cities. In late May, the U.N. troops were unable to defend the town of Bukavu, capital of Congo's South Kivu Province, against a rebel takeover.

As civilians in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa protested U.N. inaction at the fall of Bukavu, U.N. soldiers reportedly fired into the angry crowd, killing at least two.

MONUC spokeswoman Jacqueline Chenard said U.N. peacekeepers are doing their best, given their mandate and the size of their force in a country roughly four times the area of France. "We do what we can do with the strength we are being given by the [UN] Security Council. It is easy to criticize MONUC, but MONUC is trying to do its best to facilitate the transition here in the Congo, helping out the government while we trying to facilitate also when elections will be taking place," he said.

Richard Sezibera, Rwanda's envoy to the Great Lakes region, says MONUC has not been doing its job. He bristles that U.N. peacekeepers have not disarmed militias still operating in eastern Congo, especially the Hutu fighters from the Interhamwe and former Armed Forces of Rwanda accused of carrying out the 1994 genocide against Rwanda's ethnic Tutsi population. "They could only have come in to do the disarmament of negative forces. That was the only reason they came in. The international community is spending almost $1 billion every year on that force. So, there is something wrong. So they have come and say they cannot disarm these groups. There was abdication of responsibility by the international community in 1994, and I think that abdication is still continuing."

Despite the criticism being hurled at MONUC, many observers credit the mission for inspiring many Congolese to return to the relative safety of their villages and farms to start the long process of rebuilding their country.