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New Congo Army Begins Training

The formal training of a new army in the Democratic Republic of Congo began on Monday, with the integration of ex-rebels and former government soldiers into the first units of what will be a 3,700-troop brigade based in the eastern town of Kisangani. The brigade will be the first unified military unit in the country, after almost five years of war, and will be deployed into Congo's still lawless east in the coming months. Dino Mahtani spent the day in Kisangani and sent this report from Kinshasa.

A formal ceremony in front of U.N. and Belgian diplomats and Congolese officials took place at Kisangani airport on Monday. Rebel soldiers formally backed by Uganda and Rwanda and those loyal to the former government ripped off their armbands symbolizing their rejection of partisan loyalties, and their new loyalty to a unified Congolese high command.

The creation of the brigade comes five months after Congo's multi-fronted war was declared over - a war that had claimed over three million lives since 1998. A power-sharing government comprised of the former government and rebels was installed in July, with a mandate to lead the country back to democratic elections in two years time.

The creation of the new brigade eventually numbering 3,700 troops and based in Kisangani - the site of some of the worst fighting in Congo's war - is viewed as a test case for future national brigades. Belgium, Congo's ex-colonial master, will be the key international country involved in the training of Congo's troops.

Congo's defense minister, Jean-Pierre Ondekane urged the new troops to maintain discipline and promised to deploy them to the lawless eastern Ituri province, where human rights groups have accused the Congolese government, Uganda and Rwanda of backing rival militias - within three months. Some U.N. officials said however it was likely to take longer, perhaps as much as six months. Congolese units will be expected to operate alongside the U.N. peacekeeping contingent.

Congolese authorities have not yet laid down a legal framework for the army or concrete blueprints for what will be the national military road map, including figures of how many soldiers will be integrated.