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UN: LRA Remains Threat to Civilians in Eastern Congo

The head of the United Nation's peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo says significant progress has been made in stabilizing conflict areas in the East, but that the Lords Resistance Army continues to pose a serious threat to civilians there.

Alan Doss told the U.N. Security Council Thursday that the reconciliation between the governments of Congo and Rwanda has led to a real change on the ground in North Kivu since mid-January. That is when two of the main rebel groups - the CNDP and PARECO - followed by other armed groups, declared an end to the conflict and their readiness to integrate into the Congolese army.

Fighters from the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda or FDLR have also begun voluntarily going home. Doss said more than 500 fighters and their dependents have been repatriated this year.

Doss, who heads the U.N. mission known as MONUC, said this change has brought new challenges, including paying salaries and providing food and ammunition to the newly integrated troops. But he said it has also brought a very important success - the release of many child soldiers.

"A significant success in the accelerated integration is MONUC's separation of almost 1,100 children associated with armed groups since the beginning of the process earlier this year," said Doss.

Doss said the U.N.'s immediate efforts are focused on consolidating the peace process in the Kivus and containing the threat of armed groups such as the Lord's Resistance Army.

"The LRA has dispersed into small groups, who have sown terror and taken revenge by looting, raping, maiming, abducting and killing civilians in a vast area stretching from northern Ituri to the border with the Central African Republic," said Doss.

He said most of these attacks occurred between late December 2008 and mid-January 2009. Altogether, about 1,100 civilians were killed, hundreds abducted and 200,000 displaced.

"The number of attacks has gone down significantly in recent weeks, but there are indications that the LRA may be regrouping, and a new wave of attacks in the future cannot be ruled out," added Doss.

Doss said U.N. peacekeepers are also faced with protecting civilians from reprisal attacks from the FDLR and undisciplined members of the Congolese security forces. The mission is also working with the government to combat sexual violence, which is at epidemic levels in eastern Congo.

In November, the U.N. Security Council approved a temporary surge of 3,000 additional peacekeepers for the 17,000-strong mission in Congo, but so far those troops have yet to materialize. Doss said several countries have confirmed their intention to provide soldiers and police, but the mission still needs 18 helicopters for rapid deployment and reaction.