Ugandan rebels complicate UN Congo mission

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The continued presence of Ugandan LRA rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo has complicated a debate about how long United Nations peacekeepers should stay in that country. Michael Kavanagh reports from the town of Niangara, DR Congo, where hundreds of LRA victims have fled in the last five months.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. House lawmakers have passed a bill calling on President Obama to do more to help African countries defeat the Lords Resistance Army. The Ugandan rebel group has been terrorizing civilians for more than 20 years killing, kidnapping and mutilating its victims. Lately the LRA has been active in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It's a country already beset by violence. Now the LRA's presence in Congo is complicating a debate about U.N. peace keepers in that troubled country. Michael Kavanagh reports from the town of Niangara, where hundreds of LRA victims have fled. A note to listeners, some of the descriptions in this story are very disturbing.

MICHAEL KAVANAGH: When the Lord's Resistance Army arrived in Marie Mbolihundele's village less than three weeks ago, they told her if she said anything they would kill her.

INTERPRETER: I started to pray and then the pulled my lips with pliers and cut them off with a knife. Then they told me to run so I stood up and fled.

KAVANAGH: A white bandage now surrounds her mouth where her lips used to be. This brutal act is a signature of the LRA in this remote of northeastern Congo. The Congolese and Ugandan armies have been hunting down the LRA here with support from U.N. peace keepers and the U.S. military's Africa Command. That offensive has reduced the LRA's core to about 300 rebels, but they're now disbursed into small groups over more territory. And some U.N. officials say that makes them even more dangerous than ever to Congolese civilians. The LRA kidnapped Leotine Masini last June. Masini spent more than six months walking from village to village with the rebels for miles every day.

INTERPRETER: They did terrible things to us day and night. The rebels would take bricks or pieces of wood and give them to those of us who were captive and you would have to hit people over the head with them. If you don't kill the person they would take the brick and hit you instead.

KAVANAGH: Masini managed to escape in January. Now she lives in a camp with hundreds of displaced Congolese who have also fled LRA attacks. A group of women at the camp sings for the arrival of a delegation of U.N. officials who have come to assess their needs. And their needs are as vast as the forested plains that stretch for hundreds of miles around.

ABDOU DIENG: It's a very isolated area.

KAVANAGH: Abdou Dieng runs the U.N. World Food Program in Congo.

DIENG: Where to bring food you only can do it by air. Either air drops, just to drop the food, this is what we have been doing, which sometimes could attract those rebels.

KAVANAGH: The most recent LRA attacks come at a sensitive time in Congo. President Joseph Kabila has said the U.N. is impinging on his country's sovereignty and he has asked the U.N. peace keeping mission here to leave Congo before elections next year. But with armed groups like the LRA and others still roaming Congo's hinterlands, humanitarian workers like Abdou Dieng aren't so sure the peace keepers should leave just yet.

DIENG: It's too dangerous. It's too dangerous. They provide protection for civilians. They provide protection for humanitarian and they also provide security for all of us.

KAVANAGH: On Friday members of the U.N. Security Council arrive in Congo to meet with government officials. They will be discussing the eventual withdrawal of the 1.4 billion dollar a year, ten year old peace keeping operation in Congo known as MONUC. John Holmes is the U.N.'s top humanitarian official and on a plane heading home after visiting the LRA's victims, Holmes said protecting civilians has to be the primary concern.

JOHN HOLMES: MONUC cannot stay forever, but whatever drawdown there is, whatever departure plans there are, they should be carefully formulated and should relate to the achievement of basic objectives of restoring security and enabling humanitarian work to go on, not as a result of some arbitrary time table fixed by the government for different reasons.

KAVANAGH: The peace keepers' current mandate expires May 31st. Whether the Security Council renews the mandate for a full year or only six months depends on the cooperation of Congo's government. At stake is the future of the more than two million Congolese still displaced by conflict throughout Congo including 300,000 still running from the Lord's Resistance Army. For The World, I'm Michael Kavanagh, Niangara, Democratic Republic of Congo.