Congo rebels ready to fight new UN forces
M23 insurgents are training for battles with 3,000-strong brigade arriving soon
Rebels in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have said they are prepared to respond to any attack by the United Nations' first offensive force.
In March, the UN Security Council renewed the mandate of the UN mission in the Congo (Monusco) and approved the creation of a 3,000-strong "intervention brigade".
The force, which will include troops from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi, will be equipped with an artillery unit and attack helicopters, and is intended to neutralise the year-long M23 rebellion and other armed groups in the eastern Congo.
But Colonel Vianney Kazarama, the military spokesman for the M23 rebels, responded bullishly to the imminent arrival of the UN troops. "We are ready for this brigade," he said at the M23 commando training camp in Rumangabo. "They will not know the terrain, our tactics, not even the local languages. It will take them weeks to organise. If they attack, we will respond very quickly and with full force."
General James Mwakibolwa of Tanzania, who is to lead the UN brigade, has arrived in Goma, capital of North Kivu province, which has been the theatre of combat with M23 since April last year. But apart from him there is no other sign of the UN force.
South African and Tanzanian troops and weaponry were on their way, said Monusco officials, and are due to arrive in the next week. Soldiers from Malawi will bolster the force at an unspecified later date.
"There is no precise date [for the launch of operations by the brigade],"said Lieutenant Colonel Felix Basse, a Monusco spokesman. "They will be deployed as quickly as possible. We have to be realistic, the troops cannot arrive tomorrow and start operations the next day. They will need a period of familiarisation with their environment."
Despite the apparent delay in the deployment of the UN troops, M23 are preparing. At the Rumangabo rebel base, officers are training in attack, defence and ambush tactics as well as, improbably, kung fu.
During the Kazarama interview, the sound of bombs echoed from the neighbouring Virunga national park, where M23 fighters were carrying out war games.
North of the training camp is Kiwanja, a town in the middle of M23 territory. It has a camp for internally displaced people, created five years ago during the last rebellion to unsettle the region. The highest ranking members of M23 also led that rebel group.
The locals are terrified of M23's intentions and want the fighters gone. But while civil society in Goma has eagerly welcomed the brigade, people worry that the UN's new aggressive stance will only exacerbate the conflict and their problems.
"We have lost so much, lost our belongings and our children already. If the new [UN] force arrives we'll just lose even more, we will die," said a woman. "We have an African proverb: when two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled."
A camp elder was sceptical. "There are 17,000 Monusco troops already in the Congo and there has been no change. How are you going to convince us that 3,000 soldiers will change the situation?"