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UN Defends Peacekeepers' Action in Killing More than 50 Congo Militiamen

The United Nations has strongly defended the actions of peacekeeping troops in the Congo who killed at least 50 members of a local militia. The peacekeepers are taking a more aggressive approach following an attack by gunmen that killed nine U.N. troops.

U.N. officials say a force of 240 peacekeepers from Pakistan, Nepal and South Africa, backed by Indian helicopters, came under attack while carrying out a cordon and search operation. The attack occurred Tuesday north of Bunia, the main town in the Democratic Republic of Congo's mineral-rich Ituri district.

Spokesman Stephane Dujarric says the operation was aimed at flushing out members and destroying headquarters of a militia known by its French acronym FNI. The FNI is believed responsible for last week's killing of nine U.N. peacekeepers from Bangladesh.

"The operation resulted in the destruction of two militia camps, one of them believed to be battalion headquarters for the FNI militia. The operation was part of the U.N. mission's more robust approach to normalize the situation in Ituri, where local militias have been carrying out premeditated attacks against the local population," he said.

Spokesman Dujarric said the U.N. mission in Congo has been given what he called a "more robust mandate" following the killing of the Bangladeshi peacekeepers. But he denied the U.N. force had orders to attack.

"The aim of the operation was not to go out and kill people. …But it is the right of U.N. peacekeepers to return fire when fired upon, and the accounts we have is they were fired upon with mortars and heavy weapons as well, light and heavy weapons including mortars. They came under attack, they defended themselves," he said.

The Security Council Wednesday condemned the FNI for its role in last week's killing of the Bangladeshi U.N. peacekeepers, calling it an outrage. Afterwards, Britain's U.N. ambassador Emyr Jones-Parry strongly defended the retaliatory move against the militia.

"When you are confronted with people who are fighting you, you have to exercise self-defense, and take them out, basically. In those conditions we would support the U.N. peacekeepers have a robust posture because they're entitled to self-defense. They're entitled to do what is necessary to carry out the mandate, and that's what we expect," he said.

The latest incident comes amid reports that the U.N. representative in the Congo, William Lacy Swing, is about to resign. The Congo mission has been tarnished recently by charges of sex abuse by peacekeepers. Mr. Swing's departure would be seen as part of a general management shakeup as the world body tries to counter damage to its image from a series of scandals.

Spokesman Dujarric says Mr. Swing is due in New York shortly to discuss his future with Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

"There's been quite a lot of changes in the leadership of the mission. Ambassador Swing on his way here. He was supposed to travel last week. Obviously that's delayed as it's a very delicate time in the Congo. The leadership changes are ongoing. In the discussion he will have here, there will also be discussions of his own plans and there will be discussion as to the timing of any further leadership changes may occur," he said.

Ambassador Swing is credited with instituting a "no tolerance" policy after a U.N. investigation turned up evidence of widespread sexual abuse by peacekeepers. The probe found some U.N. peacekeepers in the Congo have bribed children as young as 12 with milk and eggs in return for sex.

There are nearly 11,000 U.N. troops in the Congo to help keep peace after a civil war. The contingent is the largest among the 60,000 soldiers in the U.N. peacekeeping force worldwide.