U.N. Delegation Sees Glimmer of Hope for Congo

By Barbara Crossette
May 16, 2001

UNITED NATIONS, May 15 Most of the Security Council left New York for Africa today for an intense round of talks intended to hasten the end of the war in Congo.

The unusually large delegation and the schedule of meetings with government leaders in at least nine countries will make this the most ambitious field trip the Council has made since it began studying world crises firsthand in recent years. Twelve of 15 Council members, including ambassadors from the United States, Britain, China and France, are taking part. Ambassador Jean- David Levitte of France, who is leading the mission, said in an interview on the eve of the delegation's departure that this is the moment for a concerted push on Congo.

In recent months, Mr. Levitte said, a cease-fire has held; troops from Rwanda and Uganda, which invaded Congo in 1998, have been pulling back as promised.Diplomats say it is the right time to talk about the departure of Zimbabwean, Angolan and Namibian forces fighting on the government's side.

The Security Council hopes not only to encourage momentum for the pullbacks but also to win the approval of African governments for an international conference on the economic and political development of Congo's neighborhood, the lakes region of east-central Africa.

Many diplomats say that the chances of success have improved immeasurably since the assassination of President Laurent Kabila of Congo in January, and the succession of his son, Joseph.

Mr. Levitte sees a broader change in circumstances. "The atmosphere changed before the death of Laurent Kabila," he said, adding that all the nations that signed the 1999 agreement in Lusaka, Zambia, that was one effort to end the fighting "have become tired of this war."

"They have been trying to build an exit strategy," said Mr. Levitte, who was part of a similar but smaller mission to Africa last year. "It's true to say that against this background the new president injected a new climate, a new disposition. We have a president who is really willing to move forward toward peace peace inside the Congo and peace with the neighbors of the Congo."

In recent weeks, United Nations military observers and a small protection force have begun to move into strategic cities in Congo, most recently into the diamond-mining center of Kisangani, which a year ago was hopelessly mired in war and destruction. In eastern Congo, the setting of the war, about 2.5 million people may have died since 1998, the International Rescue Committee reported last week.

This week, troops from Uruguay are expected to arrive to begin reopening and policing river traffic, the only way to travel in many parts of the huge country, which has almost no major navigable roads. The Council delegation intends to visit one of the port towns along the Congo River, Mr. Levitte said.

The Council trip is a gamble. The United Nations does not have large numbers of troops to send to Africa now for peacekeeping duties. No more than 3,500 observers and support troops have been set aside for Congo, which is nearly as large as Western Europe.

Mr. Levitte wondered what the alternatives could be.

"If the Security Council and the U.N. as a whole were not going there, who would go?" he asked. "Nobody. Nobody."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times

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