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DR Congo: First Unit of New Unified National Army Completes Training

The first battalion of the first unified brigade in the new army of Democratic Republic of Congo has completed its training in the eastern city of Kisangani. Congo's power-sharing government wants to send the unit to the troubled northeastern district of Ituri, but the United Nations, which has peacekeepers in the area, has some concerns about the plan.

Congo's first battalion completed its three months of training on Thursday, effectively becoming the first national military unit for Congo's new transitional government. The force was trained by Belgium, Congo's former colonial power.

The full brigade, which is composed of soldiers from the former government and Congo's two largest former rebel groups, is expected to be complete within another three months.

But for the moment, senior Congolese military officials in Kisangani, the capital of the eastern province of Orientale, are already talking about deploying the first battalion, comprised of some 720 soldiers. The original plan was to send the battalion into the troubled district of Ituri, where fighting and massacres by ethnic Hema and Lendu militias claimed thousands of lives last year, and over 50,000 lives since 1999. The militias are backed by Uganda and Rwanda, which want to control the mineral rich district.

In December, the head of the U.N. mission in Congo, William Lacy Swing, voiced his encouragement for plans by Congolese military officials to send the brigade to work alongside U.N. troops in Ituri.

Senior military officers in the U.N. mission have voiced concern over the plan. They say that U.N. peacekeeping missions do not normally work alongside national armies. U.N. military officers also have reservations about the level of experience of the new battalion.

Over the last few weeks, attacks by militiamen against U.N. convoys have increased, slowing down the mission's deployment into the farthest reaches of Ituri. In February, one peacekeeper was shot dead in an ambush not more than 25 kilometers north of Ituri's district capital, Bunia.

Meanwhile General Joseph Padiri, the officer in charge of the new brigade, has said that a delegation will be sent to Bunia to work out the logistics of sending his troops in within two weeks. Congo's president, Joseph Kabila, has said he believes the new Congolese army will be able to relieve the U.N. troops of their duties by the end of 2004.