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New UN Chief Heads to Africa, Faces Peacekeeping Demands

Ban Ki-moon is making his first trip to Africa as U.N. secretary-general, with many peacekeeping demands. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from our West and Central Africa in Dakar.

Mr. Ban's first stop is the Democratic Republic of Congo, where post-war elections were recently held with help from the United Nations.

The secretary-general's spokesman, Yves Sorokobi, tells VOA, the trip will give the new secretary-general valuable field experience.

"Of course, he has been there in his previous career as Korean diplomat, but now he is going as head of the United Nations. So it is a stop to get acquainted with the realities in the field and see how people are working to help in those countries. The Congo of course is our biggest operation," said Sorokobi.

Eva Marie Smets, the policy and advocacy coordinator in Kinshasa of the British-based charity group Oxfam, says she hopes the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Congo will remain the world's largest.

"Some of the security and especially the protection for the civilian population has not yet been fully solved in the moment. So, ideally, there could be more troops but considering other peacekeeping demands in Africa, that is obviously always difficult," she said.

One region where new U.N. peacekeepers are being sought is the border area separating Chad, the Central African Republic and Sudan, near Sudan's warring Darfur conflict.

An initial U.N. technical mission concluded it was too dangerous for peacekeepers to be sent there, because of a surge in fighting by rebels and militias in those countries. But U.N. Secretariat spokesman Sorokobi says it is still possible.

"U.N. peacekeepers are military operations. They are fully empowered with the mandate of self-defense. They have deployed in situations that were more volatile than what we have in those regions," said Sorokobi.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees in the region have spilled across borders, mostly from Sudan. Sorokobi says aid workers need help to support them.

"The conditions for humanitarians of course are different because they do not have the military protection that they may need," he said. "Part of the reasons that we are considering deploying in those regions is because that would also help the humanitarians in delivering assistance because they would then have protection from our people in performing their duties."

Secretary-General Ban will also be attending next week's African Union summit in Ethiopia, where he is expected to discuss a hybrid African and United Nations force for the Darfur region itself.

The African body has proposed boosting its existing peacekeepers, who have acted more as monitors, but says it needs U.N. funding.

Some African officials have suggested China as a major contributor for an expanded force, to coincide with its growing economic role on the continent.