GOMA, DR Congo (AFP) — International pressure mounted Sunday for Europe to send an emergency security force to halt strife in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo as thousands more fled fighting between rebels and government forces.
Belgium's foreign minister said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon favours a special European force until full UN peacekeeping reinforcements can be found. A French minister visiting the conflict zone called for international action to counter which she called "catastrophic" conditions for refugees.
An estimated 250,000 people have been displaced since new fighting between renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda and government forces erupted in August. This has worsened over the past six weeks with the main eastern city of Goma now surrounded by rebels.
Fighting around another town, Masisi, has sent another 6,000 people into the centre of the town over the past two days, UN Mission in DR Congo (MONUC) spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich said.
Nkunda's forces have fought pro-government militia and Rwandan Hutu militia around Masisi in recent days. Dietrich said UN forces had sent reinforcements to the town and started extra helicopter and ground patrols in the region.
Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht said the UN secretary general had asked Belgium to take part in an emergency European force for DR Congo.
Because the extra 3,000 peacekeepers approved by the UN Security Council will take time to deploy, "the United Nations hopes that a European military force could come and fill in the gap during this period," De Gucht told Belgian television.
He said the force could stay for up to six months but that Belgian wanted three or four other countries to take part.
The minister's spokesman Bart Ouvry told AFP that Ban had talked about an interim European force during De Gucht's discussions with him this week in New York.
The question is expected to be raised at NATO ministerial talks in Brussels this week as well as at an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Helsinki.
The DR Congo government said it was "open" to the idea. But Nkunda's rebels described the diplomatic development as an "unpleasant surprise.
"We thought the United Nations were looking for a peaceful resolution to the crisis," spokesman Bertran Bisimwa added, referring to talks at the weekend between UN special envoy Olusegun Obasanjo and President Joseph Kabila and Nkunda.
Belgium, the former colonial power, and France last month proposed sending troops to Nord-Kivu province to support MONUC, which is currently the biggest UN force in the world with 17,000 troops.
Other European states, including Germany, are not in favour of military support -- preferring to back humanitarian organisations and political mediation.
France's Humanitarian Affairs Minister Rama Yada said during a visit to Goma on Sunday that DR Congo was in a new "catastrophic" crisis.
"I don't know what else it will take to make the international community act," she said.
Leaders from Africa's Great Lakes region will meet in Kenya on December 11 to discuss the crisis, the group's Tanzanian presidency said. Ex-Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa has been travelling with Obasanjo, the former Nigerian president, during his peace initiative.
The Congolese army said Sunday it will host military chiefs from other countries in the region in Kinshasa this week for discussions.
Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Congo-Brazzaville, Sao Tome and Principe and Chad would all be represented, a spokesman said.
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