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European Soldiers in Congo Flex Muscles Ahead of Polls

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VOA News - July 20, 2006

The European Union's Congo force carried out exercises Thursday to show what it could do to help secure historic elections at the end of the month. The EU put its men, helicopters and technology on display in an attempt to show that it is ready to ensure the first elections in over 40 years run smoothly.

Special Forces soldiers roped out of helicopters to carry out a mock hostage rescue and a transport plane flew in and quickly dropped off men and equipment before an array of gadgets were put on display.

The display Thursday by the European Union's military force sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo was meant to show off the array of ways the EU can intervene in case of trouble during or after Congo's historic elections.

Some 1,000 European soldiers have been dispatched to Congo to help U.N. peacekeepers secure the July 30 presidential and parliamentary elections, which are meant to draw a line under a decade of conflict and chaos.

The mission is meant to act as a deterrent against anyone disrupting the electoral process or challenging the results of the vote, which should be the first free and fair vote in over 40 years.

Millions of Congolese are tired of war and are hoping the elections will offer their mineral-rich but shattered and corrupt country a chance for a fresh start.

But the run up to the polls has been tense, with violent demonstrations, hostile campaigning, attacks on the press and many of the presidential hopefuls already saying the poll cannot be free and fair.

A popular opposition party is boycotting the vote and is calling for repeated demonstrations. Violence also continues in the east, where thousands of rebels continue to roam but the E.U. soldiers are unlikely to be sent.

The EU force has yet to specify exactly how it will intervene if asked to do so by the UN, but it has reassured Congolese that it will do more than just evacuate expatriates if the situation spirals out of control.

Some four million people have been killed, mostly by war-related hunger and disease, since Congo's last war began in 1998.


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