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UN's plea for helicopters in Congo going unheard

A Congolese soldier in the northeastern DRC in September, 2010.

AFP/Marc Hoffer/AFP/Getty Images

Struggling to contain a horrifying epidemic of mass rapes and murders, United Nations peacekeepers in Congo say they desperately need one thing above all: helicopters. But more than 50 countries - including Canada - have failed to help.

In a vast and chaotic country where roads are often impassable, military helicopters are crucial for deploying peacekeepers to prevent sexual assaults and other attacks on civilians by soldiers and rebels. Two years after the UN called for more helicopters to protect the civilians, however, only three have been newly contributed.

And now the situation is about to get much worse. Most of the remaining helicopters in the UN operation are being quietly withdrawn, and budget cuts are further hampering the mission. Within a few months, according to UN sources, there will be only 14 helicopters in the entire peacekeeping operation - less than half of the number in July.

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The mission is losing its military aircraft even as controversy grows over the UN's inability to prevent rapes in Congo. In one small district alone, more than 300 villagers were raped in late July and early August by rebels and militia forces, provoking worldwide condemnation. Two months later, government soldiers were reported to be raping and killing women in the same district. The attacks were "unimaginable and unacceptable," UN envoy Margot Wallstrom said.

The Foreign Affairs Department said in a statement Tuesday that Canada deplores the violence against civilians, particularly the ongoing sexual violence against women and children, and continues to strongly support efforts to strengthen the rule of law to promote accountability for such crimes.

Canada carefully considers any formal requests from the UN to provide support to specific peace operations on a case-by-case basis, it added. Unfortunately, Canada was not in a position to support this particular request due to other operational commitments, it said.

More than 15,000 people were raped in the eastern region of Congo last year alone, according to Roger Meece, head of the UN peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Activists have called eastern Congo "the rape capital of the world."

In private consultations with the UN in New York last week, Mr. Meece "laid out a stark reality that if our military helicopter fleet continues to shrink, protection of civilians will be at risk, as well as military action to counter the activities of armed groups," a UN source said.

Helicopters are vital for the peacekeepers in Congo because the fighting has moved into increasingly remote regions of the country. The UN has more than 90 bases scattered around the country, some with as few as 30 troops stationed in them, and some can be supplied only by helicopter. The roads in Congo are so poor that a 100-kilometre drive can sometimes take several days.

In 2008, the UN Security Council authorized an additional 18 helicopters to be deployed to Congo. More than 50 countries, including Canada, were contacted by senior UN officials to see whether they could provide helicopters, according to a UN official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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Only two countries - Bangladesh and Uruguay - answered the call. They provided three helicopters, leaving the UN with a shortfall of 15 aircraft. That shortfall will increase dramatically as one of the biggest contributors, India, has already withdrawn nine helicopters since June and is set to withdraw another 10 by early next year.

There are more than 130 helicopters in the Canadian armed forces, according to a defence department spokesman, not including training or search-and-rescue helicopters. However, many of these are deemed unsuitable for harsh hot-weather climates. The federal government, arguing that its helicopter fleet is stretched too thin, has ordered dozens of new helicopters from suppliers to be delivered in the coming years. In the Afghanistan conflict, Canada has sometimes been forced to borrow helicopters from other countries to transport its troops.

With about 18,000 peacekeepers and an annual $1.3-billion budget, the UN mission in Congo is the biggest peacekeeping mission in the world. But the mission - known as MONUSCO - still lacks the resources to control the violence, especially in the war-torn eastern provinces, Mr. Meece said.

"In this vast area - larger than the size of Afghanistan - it is not possible for MONUSCO to ensure full protection for all civilians," Mr. Meece told the UN Security Council last week. "To approach this goal would require vastly greater force levels and resources."

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Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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