India is replacing some of its soldiers in the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo as the central African nation grapples with some of the worst violence it has seen in years, an Indian army official said on Friday. Anywhere from 1,100-1,200 soldiers, all from India's Gurkha battalions, will leave for Congo within the month to join the peacekeeping mission known by the French acronym MONUC, Indian army spokesman Virendra Singh said. An equal number of Indian soldiers will return to India, he said.
"Keeping in view the volatile conditions in Congo, the unit has carried out extensive training and mission sensitization in Delhi for the past few months in all aspects of UN operations and humanitarian issues and is highly motivated," said a press statement from the Indian army.
The UN says that its biggest peacekeeping mission _ a 17,000-strong force _ is now stretched to the limit with the surge in fighting and needs more troops quickly. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uruguay and South Africa are the main contributors to the existing force.
Fewer than 6,000 of the mission's 17,000 troops are deployed in North Kivu, the site of the current fighting, because unrest in other provinces has required their presence elsewhere, the UN says. By comparison, rebel leader Laurent Nkunda commands about 10,000 fighters.
The conflict is fueled by festering ethnic hatred left over from Rwanda's 1994 genocide and Congo's unrelenting civil wars. Nkunda claims the Congolese government has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping slaughter a half million Rwandan Tutsis.
The peacekeepers have struggled with a complex mandate that includes protecting civilians, disarming rebel fighters and policing buffer zones separating the insurgents from government troops. The mission also has been charged with supporting a Congolese force of 30,000 soldiers cobbled together from a defeated national army and several of the rebel groups who vanquished it in 1996. Rights groups have also accused government forces of atrocities and widespread looting.