"We're talking about a surge capacity, we're not talking about a permanent arrangement," Secretary-General's Special Representative Alan Doss told reporters after briefing the Security Council on the renewal of hostilities in the eastern provinces and the need to accelerate the separation of armed groups and their demobilization.
"We are entering a potentially very dangerous phase, tensions are rising and we do not want to see the Congo plunge back into the conflict which spilled over and involved neighbours," he said, referring to the six-year civil war that cost 4 million lives in fighting and attendant hunger and disease – widely considered the most lethal conflict in the world since World War II – before it ended earlier this decade.
"That conflict lasted for many years with horrendous consequences for the whole sub-region and especially for the Congo itself," he added, voicing particular concern at the rise in ethnic tensions, and speaking at the end of a week that saw rocket-firing UN attack helicopters go into action against rebels who had opened fire on them in Ituri province.
It was the latest such action over the past month by the peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUC), the largest such UN presence currently on the ground, to protect civilian populations in the east, especially in North Kivu province where the rebel National Congress for People's Defence (CNDP) has been pushing against Government forces.
Mr. Doss said the Council asked for more details on the troop request. He was pressed repeatedly on the number of extra troops he had requested. "If I said 'modest,' that wouldn't satisfy you," he replied, laughing. "I can't really say at this point. We're discussing it with DPKO (Department for Peacekeeping Operations), but obviously it's not going to be a vast increase.
"We have to be realistic as to what could be possible. But it's also about the quality and getting air mobility and that sort of thing, it's not just the numbers game," he said, acknowledging that the peacebuilding budget is not "infinitely elastic" and there are many demands on it at the moment.
In the meantime, "we will have to move ahead with what we've got and certainly we will use our mandate as it is today to take action when it is necessary to protect civilians and prevent further deterioration," he added, noting that he had also discussed with the Council a reconfiguration of forces "to see to what extent we can get more mileage out of what we've got."
MONUC was set up in 1999 with an initial strength of some 5,500 military personnel to help enforce a ceasefire in the civil war and restore peace and stability. One of the UN's major achievements was to help organize presidential, national and provincial elections two years ago, the largest and most complex polls it has ever helped to run. Since then, much of the rest of the country has been relatively calm.
Mr. Doss cited some progress in South Kivu. "So the picture isn't all bleak, but nevertheless the situation in North Kivu is, above all, very, very preoccupying," he said. "Ethnic tensions have risen in North Kivu and that is very dangerous – no doubt about it."
He voiced concern over reported statements by the CNDP's leader, renegade general Laurent Nkunda, which could further stoke tensions, a position echoed by a mission spokesman in Kinshasa, the DRC capital, who said: "MONUC and the international community will not tolerate this new attempt to destabilize the political process."
Another area of concern is Orientale province, where the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) from Uganda has launched attacks, uprooting thousands from their homes and kidnapping 90 children. The group is notorious for recruiting child soldiers.
Mr. Doss said UN capacities to contain the situation there were very limited "given our preoccupations in the Kivus… There are limits to what we can do, we can't be everywhere all the time."
Summing up the gravity of the situation, he stressed the imperative of dealing with the problem of armed groups. "Otherwise the rule of laws is being supplanted by the rule of the gun," he declared.