U.N. troops open fire on rioting protesters

Friday, June 4, 2004

KINSHASA, Congo -- U.N. troops fired on rampaging protesters in Congo's capital Thursday, killing at least two, as the surprise capture of an eastern city by renegade commanders sparked the most violent protests here since the outbreak of the country's 1998-2002 war. Crowds turned on President Joseph Kabila's weak government and Congo's 10,800-member U.N. force for failing to stop the fall of the city of Bukavu, surging into the streets by the thousands to attack U.N. installations.

"The state is dead!" protesters cried in the demonstrations that broke out at daybreak, filling the city center with thunderous chants. Swinging wooden clubs and converging on U.N. posts, they promised, "We will punish the United Nations ourselves."

Despite the bloodshed, hope rose of defusing the unprecedented crisis for Congo's fragile postwar government when renegade commanders in the east began pulling their troops out of Bukavu on Thursday.

Brig. Gen. Jan Isberg, commander of the U.N. force in Bukavu, said the renegades agreed to complete their withdrawal on Friday. Beginning Saturday, U.N. peacekeepers will use force "to disarm and arrest" armed fighters found in Bukavu.

The withdrawal "is intended to assure the transitional government that we are not opposed to it," pledged Gen. Laurent Nkunda, one of the two commanders who broke from ranks of the government's forces and seized Bukavu on Wednesday.

Kabila, the country's president, blamed Rwanda, its primary foreign adversary in the war, for the fall of Bukavu, a strategic trade center on the Rwandan border. Rwanda denied the charge.

U.N. Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guehenno blamed the violence on unreasonable expectations among Congolese about the U.N. peacekeepers' ability to control militants.

"There's an expectation that MONUC (the U.N. mission) with its limited resources could do everything," Guehenno said in New York. "I think it's likely we will need more troops."

At a U.N. logistics base in Kinshasa, crowds broke down the main door and began looting, U.N. spokesman Hamadoun Toure said.

U.N. troops inside opened fire, killing two protesters and wounding one, he said.

State radio said U.N. troops from Ghana did the shooting. The United Nations would not give the nationalities of the troops who fired.

"They entered, and there were very many of them," Toure said. He said U.N. forces fired in self-defense, adding: "We regret this deeply because our mission was to establish peace in the country but we were left with no choice."

State radio put the death toll at the U.N. base at five.

Separately, Congolese security forces fired -- apparently into the air -- to hold back thousands of protesters besieging U.N. mission headquarters in the heart of Kinshasa. Shattered glass and hurled rocks and wood surrounded the cordons of Congolese troops.

Protesters also burned the offices of former rebel Jean-Pierre Bemba, one of four vice presidents in the power-sharing government, officials said.

Gunshots echoed across the city center, sending panicked throngs stampeding. The city calmed by early afternoon, leaving spent demonstrators picking their way home through burned vehicles, tires and barricades.

Kabila spokesman Kurdura Kasongo declared the rioters had been "spontaneously expressing their attachment to national unity."

But the turmoil in Kinshasa and Bukavu starkly showed the weakness of the government, and it was unclear how much damage had been done to efforts to achieve stability and peace.

Thursday's protests were the largest in the capital since at least 1997, when longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko fell, launching Congo into the 1998-2002 war.

The war drew in the armies of six foreign nations -- including Rwanda -- and split the country. The conflict, and the famine and disease it brought, killed an estimated 3.5 million people.

The war began when Rwanda and Uganda backed Congolese rebels seeking to overthrow the post-Mobutu government of Kabila's father, Laurent Kabila.

Rwanda accused Laurent Kabila's regime of failing to contain ethnic militias behind the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which chiefly targeted minority Tutsi.

Nkunda and Col. Jules Mutebutsi, the renegade commanders who seized Bukavu, are Congolese Tutsi, and wartime members of a rebel group allied to Rwanda. The two accused the government-appointed military commander in the region of mismanaging security and persecuting the Congolese Tutsi.

Talks with U.N. officials yielded Nkunda's promise to pull out of Bukavu by Friday.

Renegade officers in the city will be allowed to move with a limited number of military escorts within Bukavu, Isberg said. Renegade commanders and U.N. military officials will meet again Friday to discuss the location of camps in which troops pulling out of Bukavu will be quartered.

Eighty U.N. troops with armored vehicles were on their way to bolster the 800-member U.N. force in Bukavu, U.N. spokesman Sebastian Lapierre said.

Blaming the U.N. troops, residents threw stones at U.N. vehicles and threatened to lynch U.N. workers.

Similar anti-U.N. protests were reported in several other cities. Crowds looted, then burned, four homes of U.N. and International Rescue Committee workers in the city of Kisangani.

Associated Press reporters Rodrique Ngowi in Bukavu and Eddy Isango in Kinshasa contributed to this report.

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