July 10, 2008 / 6:04 PM / 11 years ago

UN Congo probes Indian officer over rebel "support"

KINSHASA, July 10 (Reuters) - The scandal-hit United Nations mission in Democratic Republic of Congo is investigating an Indian peacekeeping officer accused of showing support for eastern Tutsi rebels, a U.N. spokesman said on Thursday.

The allegations stem from recordings of a bush ceremony in which an Indian U.N. commander hailed the rebels as "brothers" and presented their leader General Laurent Nkunda with his regimental crest, according to a transcript of the event.

Nkunda's rebels, also led by Jean Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, have continued to clash with Congo's weak government despite a peace deal this year that followed 2006 elections intended to pacify the vast mineral-rich former Belgian colony.

The world's largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo often finds itself stuck in the middle -- fighting rebels and militias but also at times accused by the government of not doing enough.

It has also been dogged by allegations of sexual abuse and illegal gold and arms trading by some of its members.

"We have launched an investigation," mission spokesman Kemal Saiki told Reuters in response to the allegations against the Indian officer. "If confirmed ... this would be personal conduct unbecoming a peacekeeper and is a dereliction of duty."

Saiki refused to name the officer but the transcript seen by Reuters and other U.N. sources identified him as Colonel Chand Saroha, the former commander at Sake, a strategic town in the eastern province of North Kivu.

"We are like brothers," Saroha told Nkunda, Bosco and their fighters at the ceremony in April marking his departure from the zone, according to the transcript.

"Officially we are not allowed to meet you. But your good conduct, your good discipline ... made us feel we were associated with proud people," Saroha added.

Amid chants from his soldiers, according to the transcript, Nkunda thanked Saroha, saying: "You have helped us a great deal."

There was no immediate reaction from Congolese President Joseph Kabila's government, which has vowed to bring peace to the country's turbulent east.

Nkunda's rebels and other eastern armed groups signed a peace deal with the government early this year but all sides are accused of breaking it by continuing attacks, looting and rapes.

An estimated 5.4 million people, mostly civilians, have died, often from war-related hunger and disease, during a decade of violence in Congo.



BELEAGUERED PEACEKEEPERS

Indian peacekeepers in North Kivu have repeatedly had to move in to halt the advance of Nkunda's men after they over-ran government forces in and around Sake on several occasions.

The U.N. troops killed hundreds of rebel insurgents during a rebel offensive in 2006 but were accused of not doing enough during a similar battle late last year.

The latest allegations follow reports that previous Indian and Pakistani U.N. units in Congo were involved in trading gold with Rwandan Hutu rebels and used U.N. helicopters to exchange ivory for ammunition with the insurgents.

The U.N. was then accused of failing to fully investigate the matter for fear of upsetting troop contributing nations at a time when peacekeeping missions were thinly stretched.

"We shouldn't let the action of one individual undermine the good work (of the U.N.) in North Kivu, no matter how important that individual is," Saiki said.

"We go through the system that is in place. It is not the failure of the U.N. -- countries have the responsibility to enforce discipline," he replied when asked if the U.N. was failing to discipline its peacekeepers. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/) (Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)



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