5,500 U.N. Observers To Congo

Singer Martina McBride poses for photographers as she arrives for the 41st Academy of Country Music Awards May 23, 2006, in Las Vegas.
Half a year after six nations and three rebel groups signed a cease-fire on Congo, the U.N. Security Council on Thursday authorized a 5,500-strong observer force to monitor its implementation and lay the groundwork for possible deployment of a peacekeeping force.

The former combatants are already pressing for the United Nations to send peacekeepers, but the Security Council first wants the opposing sides to honor the cease-fire.

The 15-member council unanimously agreed to the U.S.-drafted resolution to send 500 military observers, supported by 5,037 security troops and logistics personnel. The group will verify that all parties are observing last summer's cease-fire aimed at ending a 1 1/2-year war in Congo that has destabilized central Africa.

U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has said the United States will not provide troops but may provide logistical support. U.S. officials have not elaborated on the type of support, but in past missions that has included transportion and communications.

Now, it is up to the United Nations to begin the expensive and complex task of deploying troops in a country the size of Western Europe but with virtually no roads.

Because of transport limitations, the U.N. is planning to rely almost entirely on hundreds of airlifts to get the troops on the ground to start monitoring Congo's faltering cease-fire.

That takes time and costs money: an estimated $500 million for the operation in its first year, an amount that represents a third of the U.N. peacekeeping budget approved last year.

Rebels took up arms in eastern Congo in August 1998 to oust Congolese President Laurent Kabila from power. Citing concerns about security along their borders with Congo, Rwanda and Uganda backed the rebels, while Kabila enlisted the support of Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

All the key factions signed the cease-fire agreement last summer in Lusaka, Zambia, but fighting has continued - particularly in the eastern part of the country.

The first observers, who would be backed by 5,037 security and logistical support staff, could begin arriving in Congo in the next two to three weeks. But a senior U.N. official told reporters it would take four to six months for the full strength of 5,537 to arrive.

That timeframe, the official stressed, was predicated on ideal conditions: that the troops were ready to go, that the fighting didn't worsen, and that the six warring countries in the Congo guaranteed their security.

Already, the United Nations has troop commitments for the 500 observers and most of the support staff, the official said on condition of anonymity.

But the United Nations is still short much of the needed equipment, such as helicopters and large aircraft. The United States has said it won't contribute ground troops, but may provide logistics support, which in past peacekeeping operations has included transport, communications and equipment.

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