Indian Air Force returns to Congo on U.N. peace mission
Tuesday, 01 July 2003, 07:00 Hrs
NEW DELHI: More than 40 years after it played a key role in establishing peace in Congo, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is set to return to the troubled African nation as part of a U.N. peacekeeping mission. A 250-strong contingent equipped with at least eight transport helicopters -- the largest team fielded by the IAF for an overseas deployment -- will leave here July 11 to join the U.N. mission in Congo, or MONUC, said defence ministry officials. "The IAF was recently deployed for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone but this is our largest deployment so far," said an IAF official. "The IAF contingent will be in Congo for a year." The IAF contingent is expected to play a crucial role in humanitarian assistance programmes in the war-ravaged African nation, officials said. This will be a marked change from the role the air force played in Congo in 1961-62, when its Canberra bombers were involved in combat operations against rebels in the breakaway province of Katanga. The IAF had then sent six Canberra bombers along with a 150-member team following a U.N. request for armed troops and military aircraft to join the mission in Congo. Indian soldiers were deployed in Katanga, where they were ambushed and attacked from the air by foreign mercenaries and Katangese rebels. In a series of swift attacks, the IAF's Canberras destroyed the airbases and aircraft used by the rebels. They then mounted attacks on Katanga's capital, destroying communication centres and ammunition dumps, thereby weakening the position of the rebels. But the IAF is taking no chances for its current deployment in Congo, where fighting between rival rebel and tribal factions is believed to have claimed between two million and 4.7 million lives. This is the greatest loss of lives in a war since World War II, and IAF personnel have been strictly instructed to ensure that no one is exposed to any risk during operations in Congo. The fighting has been fuelled by ethnic hatreds, competition for gold and other natural resources and intervention, both direct and indirect, by Congo's neighbours. Church leaders have even alleged that cannibalism is widespread The U.N. mission is responsible for monitoring the implementation of a ceasefire agreement aimed at ending a five-year-old war, and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has suggested that MONUC's military strength be boosted to nearly 11,000 troops from the current ceiling of 8,700.