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U.N. council warms to idea of more Congo troops: U.N.

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council is overcoming its reluctance to send more peacekeepers to help avert a new war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the top U.N. peacekeeping official said on Tuesday.

U.N. under-secretary-general for peacekeeping Alain Le Roy, who had just returned from central Africa, spoke to reporters after briefing the 15-nation council on his request for 3,000 more troops and police to reinforce the 17,000-strong Congo peacekeeping mission, the largest U.N. force in the world.

“Many members of the council have expressed their support for strengthening MONUC and augmenting, increasing the number of troops in the MONUC,” Le Roy said, using the French acronym for the U.N. force in the Congo.

“No decision has been taken yet by the council, but I think the mood is evolving into reinforcing the troops,” he said.

This view was backed by Congo’s U.N. Ambassador Atoki Ileka, who told Reuters: “The council will eventually come around to supporting the increase but it will take some time.”

Weeks of violence have forced more than 250,000 people to flee their homes or ramshackle camps where they had taken shelter, bringing the number of internal refugees from years of fighting above 1 million.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has repeatedly urged the divided Security Council to take swift action on MONUC’s request for reinforcements, said that over 100,000 refugees were desperate and virtually cut off from aid.

Fighting between Tutsi rebels and pro-government troops and militias has subsided into sporadic clashes in recent days as African leaders pressed both sides to avoid a regional war.

A group of human rights and aid activists, speaking to reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York, said the council must act with urgency.

Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch urged the Security Council “to move fast to increase the number of peacekeepers and save lives.”

British Ambassador John Sawers said the council would give Le Roy’s request for reinforcements “serious consideration” but made clear that member states wanted first to be certain that troops now in Congo were as effectively deployed as possible.

The council will not make a decision before it receives a new report by Secretary-General Ban on MONUC next week and may take weeks to pass a resolution approving additional troops. Le Roy cautioned that it would take at least two months for any troop reinforcements to arrive in Congo.

In the meantime, Le Roy said he was redeploying existing troops throughout the eastern Congo, above all in the crisis area around Goma, the capital of North Kivu province. He was also encouraging MONUC troops to “act robustly.”

Some countries on the council, including South Africa, have said that MONUC’s mandate did not allow it to act aggressively enough to protect civilians in danger.

“We have a problem now, because we have MONUC on the ground with all the intentions to protect civilians, but it’s not working out well,” South African envoy Dumisani Kumalo said.

Costa Rican Ambassador Jorge Urbina, the current council president, said most council members agreed the current mandate gave MONUC the right to do what it needed to protect people.

Le Roy was asked if that meant MONUC peacekeepers had the right to “shoot to kill” if they deemed it necessary to protect civilians in Congo. He said: “The answer is yes.”

Editing by Vicki Allen