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Congo conflict draws in Indian air warriors

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  • Published 6.09.04

New Delhi, Sept. 6: More troops from India are being sucked into the vortex of a fullscale war in Congo, the African nation where UN forces have been transformed from peacekeepers to third party military interventionists.

A special support services contingent of the Indian Air Force will be flown to the African nation this week. The support services contingent will be in addition to contingents of 243 air warriors from the air force and about a 100-strong team from 9 Para, an army special forces unit, that were deployed in Congo in July.

The support services team will be in Congo to build helipads. Earlier, the IAF had sent 5 Mi-17 transport and four Mi-25 attack helicopters in response to a fervent UN appeal because the world body could not find anyone else from among its member states who would be able to fulfil its operational requirements.

Last month, the UN extended the mandate for MONUC, the UN mission in Congo and secretary-general Kofi Annan urged for greater contributions in cash and kind.

The Indian military, from its earlier deployments in Congo — the 9 Para team replaced another army team from Garhwal Rifles — had concluded that the size of the UN force in Congo was too small given the threat perception.

This meant that Indian troops and other troops in the UN blue-helmeted force were at great risk from the warring Hema and Lendu tribal militia and rebel troops from President Kabila’s army.

India has made a case to send larger, reinforced armed contingents to the UN military missions because of increasing attacks from warring parties. An Indian military think tank, the National Defence College in a concept paper points out that this is necessary because more and more third-party interventionists are becoming primary targets of attack in conflicts around the world.

But critics of international UN military missions say developing nations are perforce made to provide manpower while rich countries pay the bills. The US, for instance, is the largest contributor for UN missions in cash but does not send its troops. Countries like India want the prestige of being associated with UN missions and the $1,000 per soldier per month that the UN pays.

There are contingents in Congo currently from countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Chile, Morocco and Uruguay.

In Congo particularly, the UN troops face some of the greatest risks to life and limb. Congo is the first time India has sent troops under what is known as a Chapter VII” deployment. Chapter VII authorises “peace enforcement” a euphemism for active military intervention or authorises the troops to wage war against warring parties.

The first contingent under a Chapter VII deployment went to Congo last year. Till then Indian troops were sent only on Chapter VI “peacekeeping” missions.

The difference between deploying troops last year and in the current year is evident. Flagging of the team last year, the Air Chief Marshal Krishnaswamy had said the force is not expected to be involved actively militarily.

In July, however, he told the air warriors, that the mission was “practically an operational deployment”. “You never know what kind of situation you will be drawn into. So you should act like dedicated air warriors,” he advised and recalled that “many a time have the helicopters returned with bullet holes in their bodies”.