The vanguard of a new contingent of United Nations peacekeepers has arrived in embattled Katanga province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to boost security for forthcoming elections that it is hoped will cement the vast country's transition from years of bloody conflict to peace and democracy.
The first 149 Blue Helmets of a Beninese battalion that is expected to total 750 arrived over the weekend in Kalemie, in the north of Katanga, a province the size of France where fighting between the army and Mai Mai rebels has driven up to 200,000 people from their homes in the last six months.
The new battalion's main mission will be to create a stable security environment for the elections by protecting the local population, securing humanitarian actions, backing the electoral process, and cooperating with government troops in disarming ?negative? forces, the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC) said.
The Security Council in October authorized an increase of MONUC military personnel by 300 staff, allowing for the deployment to Katanga, where the army has launched attacks against Mai-Mai combatants who are preventing the implementation of Government authority.
The fighting has led to the displacement of people in a region that is still troubled by the after-effects of the Congolese civil war, which over a six-year period cost 4 million lives in what has been called the most lethal fighting in the world since World War II.
Katanga's displaced have no shelter and little food and find themselves far from the voting centres where they had registered for the elections.
The poll, slated for 18 June, is the largest and most expensive electoral assistance operation the UN has ever undertaken.
The remaining Beninese soldiers are due to arrive next week and will include a company equipped with 12 armoured vehicles, as well as three motorized companies with all-terrain trucks. By early May MONUC plans to have 1,000 Blue Helmets stationed in Katanga. Overall MONUC has nearly 1,800 uniformed personnel in the DRC.