By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 13 (Reuters) - The United Nations said on Thursday it had launched a comprehensive review of its Congo peacekeeping mission, which suffered a severe blow to its image last month after it stood aside and let rebels seize control of a major eastern city.
But U.N. Security Council diplomats and officials said any changes in the U.N.'s largest peacekeeping force would matter little if authorities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo did not improve their own army, and neighboring Rwanda and Uganda continued to finance, equip and train rebel groups in mineral-rich eastern Congo.
U.N. officials have defended the U.N. Congo force, MONUSCO, for not preventing the well-equipped M23 rebels from taking the eastern city of Goma last month.
They said any attempt to have done so would have put Goma's civilian population at risk. But they are painfully aware of the damage to the image of the mission, which U.N. officials say has been quite effective over the years, in Congo and across Africa.
"MONUSCO's reputation has been severely damaged in the DRC and the region," a U.N. diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "The U.N. is looking closely at MONUSCO now to consider whether there can be changes."
U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer said the United Nations was launching a comprehensive assessment of MONUSCO, and diplomats said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would present the results to the Security Council early next year.
"The United Nations is starting a strategic review of the organization's engagement in the DRC, including MONUSCO's configuration," Dwyer said. "Our objective is to determine how we can better assist the Congolese people to avoid the recurring cycles of violence in the East."
He said that the United Nations would be looking at the idea of an "international neutral force" to be deployed along the border with Rwanda. That proposal has been discussed within the African Union and regional African organizations.
Diplomats said that if the Security Council backed Ban's recommendations for changes in the structure and mandate of the more than 20,000-strong MONUSCO force, the 15-nation council might travel to the region to marshal support for the proposals.
One idea U.N. officials are considering is the creation of an "enforcement wing" of MONUSCO, that would take a more robust approach to dealing with insurgents in eastern Congo, U.N. diplomats and officials told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"The idea would be to create a wing of MONUSCO that would do more than simply support the FARDC (Congolese army) but could take on more difficult battlefield tasks," an envoy said.
Details are sketchy, since the review has just begun. But the idea is that the enforcement wing and the international neutral force could deploy along the Rwandan border, possibly with a separate, beefed-up mandate from the rest of MONUSCO, though they would all be part of the same overall mission.
Diplomats said the idea would have to be approved by troop-contributing countries and the Security Council.
'LET DOWN BY MONUSCO'
A U.N. panel of experts has said M23 rebels are getting money, sophisticated equipment, training and reinforcements from Rwanda, as well as some additional support from Uganda. Analysts, diplomats and U.N. officials say Rwanda and Uganda have been interfering in eastern Congo for many years.
Rwanda and Uganda deny the charges.
Local residents were deeply disappointed when MONUSCO did nothing to stop M23 rebels led by Bosco Ntaganda, a renegade general known as the "terminator" who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, from seizing Goma. Amid international outrage, the rebels left Goma after 11 days.
"We feel so let down by MONUSCO," Constant, an unemployed electrician in Goma, told Reuters. "When MONUSCO says they are capable of protecting the people, it is false. They protect their own interests. They are not capable of guaranteeing our security."
"When M23 entered Goma they just stood by," he added. "Many here in this town oppose MONUSCO's presence."
Tariq Riebl, Oxfam's humanitarian coordinator in Congo, said "MONUSCO's performance has fallen way short of what anyone would expect, particularly over the past few months."
"Their presence is not preventing militias from operating in eastern Congo, and they don't seem able to protect civilians from daily atrocities taking place across eastern DRC. In a recent Oxfam survey in three provinces, some people told us MONUSCO had a lower approval rating than the government army."
It is not the first time Goma residents have felt let down by blue-helmeted U.N. troops. In 2008, the Security Council increased the size the peacekeeping force by 3,000 troops to help Congo's weak army confront Tutsi rebels in eastern Congo.
At that time, angry displaced people and residents rioted and hurled stones at the peacekeepers, accusing them of failing to protect them from raping and pillaging Tutsi rebels led by renegade General Laurent Nkunda.
Despite recent setbacks sparked by the M23 rebellion and political instability in Congo, U.N. officials and diplomats say MONUSCO has done much good in Congo, which has seen five different peacekeeping forces over the last five decades.
John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project anti-genocide group and the Satellite Sentinel Project, told Reuters that MONUSCO was now "largely irrelevant," but could focus more attention on non-military problems.
"Its civilian component ... could be beefed up significantly," Prendergast said. "MONUSCO could do much more in exposing human rights abuses, mediating localized conflicts, supporting conflict-free mine sites, and pressing for the holding of local elections."
One problem in eastern Congo is that the army itself is in shambles. Not only is it widely seen as incapable of providing security in the region, it routinely faces accusations of rape and other atrocities.
Another problem is the weakness of President Joseph Kabila's government, which has virtually no control over eastern Congo, an area the size of France. U.N. officials have spoken of Rwanda's de facto annexation of Congo's eastern provinces.
"Kabila might want to blame all his problems on MONUSCO, but at the end of the day, it's Congo that has to accept responsibility and solve the problem," a Western diplomat said.
Another envoy echoed that view, saying it was time to "end the illusion that MONUSCO is there to prop up the government."