UNITED NATIONS – U.N. officials defended peacekeepers who killed up to 60 militiamen in a gunbattle in Congo (search), saying the international troops were acting in self-defense and protecting civilians who had been terrorized for years.
The high death count and fierce fighting defied the notion that U.N. peacekeepers (search) stick to defense rather than joining the fight. But the Congo mission was given a stronger mandate last year to round up guns and defend the populace.
The 242 Pakistani peacekeepers were on a mission to dismantle a militant headquarters near the village of Loga, in lawless Ituri province (search) in eastern Congo, when they came under fire. They responded with sustained fire that included air support from Indian attack helicopters.
"These militias had been preying on villagers and it was felt it was the U.N.'s role to protect the vulnerable population, and that's what the aim of the mission was," U.N. associate spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
The region has seen intense violence lately — including the slaying of nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers on Friday.
Details emerged suggesting that the nine peacekeepers had been kept alive and were then executed after the ambush. Late Wednesday, the United Nations said the nine peacekeepers were shot at point-blank range, and their bodies were stripped of all weapons, ammunition, uniforms, and all equipment.
U.N. officials said there was no connection between the two incidents, and insisted Tuesday's operation was not a retaliation. They said peacekeepers had conducted several such operations in Ituri, but this was the first time there was such a high death toll.
U.N. officials and diplomats strongly defended the peacekeepers' actions, stressing that the troops had been fired on first.
"The U.N. has traditionally kept peace. It hasn't done war fighting, but when you're confronted with people who are fighting you, you have to exercise self-defense and take them out, basically," Britain's U.N. Ambassador Emyr Jones-Parry said.
A presidential statement from the Security Council welcomed the peacekeeping force's "robust action in pursuit of its mandate."
The militia belongs to the ethnic Lendu political party Nationalist and Integrationist Front. Tribal fighters have killed dozens of people, looted and burned homes, and forced over 70,000 people to flee to the hills for safety since December.
The United Nations also suspects the same militia is responsible for slaying the nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers.
The gunbattle Tuesday, while notable for the numbers killed, was not unprecedented.
A campaign to free some 200 hostages in Sierra Leone in 2000 was believed to have killed dozens of militia. And in Congo itself 40 years ago, U.N. troops launched a string of military operations to help quash bid for independence in the Katanga region after the country gained independence from Belgium.
Still, it was a marked reversal after some of the United Nations' most embarrassing episodes: Peacekeepers were accused of standing by in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995, a U.N.-declared safe area at the time, when at least 7,500 Muslim men were rounded up and then systematically slaughtered by Bosnian Serb soldiers.
The United Nations — along with the rest of the international community — was also criticized for not intervening to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Congo's five-year, six-nation war, which killed nearly 4 million people, ended in 2002. A transitional government established a year later has struggled to extend its authority to the long-ungoverned east.
Some 15,000 peacekeepers from 100 countries — the U.N.'s largest peacekeeping deployment — are overseeing a transition toward peace in Congo. The number will increase to 16,700 troops by March.