Gerard Gaudin reports on how, with the aid of Belgian UAVs, European soldiers are supporting the UN in securing the first free presidential elections in the Congo for nearly 40 years.
THE EUROPEAN Union is currently carrying out its second autonomous military operation — once again in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It successfully completed Operation Artemis in the Congo’s Bunia district in the summer of 2003, following a request to reinforce — the MONUC (Mission des Nations Uniies en Republique Democratique du Congo — United Nations Mission in DRC).
Launched on July 30 for a four-month period, EUFOR RD Congo is supporting the MONUC during the presidential election process in this war-torn country, where ten years of hostilities between supporters of the Congolese President, Joseph Kabila, and his rival, Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba, have led to the deaths of four million people.
EUFOR’s 2,400-strong force includes some 1,100 troops stationed in the capital, Kinshasa, with another 1,300 on standby in neighbouring Gabon and a strategic reserve in France. The overall commander is a German officer, Lt-Gen Karlheinz Viereck, who heads the multi-national Operational Headquarters (OHQ), based at the Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces) joint command ‘Einsatzfuhrungskommando’ (Operational command) at Geltow, near Berlin. This is Germany’s first leadership role in an EU military operation. In the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, the tactical Force Headquarters (FHQ) is led by a French officer, Major-General Christian Damay.
Sixteen of the 25 EU countries are involved in the effort in some way, though some make only a symbolic contribution — such as the UK, which has a single officer at the Kinshasa FHQ. France and Germany each contributed 500 personnel, with other EU nations making up the remainder. Spain and Poland agreed to contribute about 120 troops each, and Sweden and Portugal offered smaller contingents of special forces. Greece, Italy and Portugal each offered C-130 Hercules for the much-needed air transport, normally based at Libreville. Belgium, the former colonial power, provided four B-Hunter Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) flying from the small N’Dolo airport not far from the centre of Kinshasa: these are used to collect information on road traffic and crowd activity in the area of the city.
EUFOR can also rely on French Mirage FICRs normally based at N’Djamena (Chad) but operating, if needed, from Libreville with the assistance of a (K)C-135 FR tanker.
A neutral force
The EU force is meant to act as a reserve force for the 17,600 UN troops or ‘blue helmets’ as they often referred to and is the organisation’s biggest peacekeeping mission, being called upon to help out in emergencies and to quell threats to stability. EUFOR is focused on the western part of Congo and on the capital, rather than the restive east of the country where MONUC is reported to have sufficient peacekeepers, including a 3,500-strong Indian contingent, equipped with Mi-35s gunship helicopters.
EU soldiers in Kinshasa also ensure the security of the N’Djili international airport and, if necessary, are responsible for evacuating European election monitors from the country.
According to the UN mandate, the soldiers only intervene if Congo’s police and army lose control and the UN peacekeeping force asks for help.
On August 21, when fighting erupted in Kinshasa and threatened to derail the historic elections, the EU force showed both its usefulness and its neutrality. European soldiers and UN peacekeepers reacted quickly when troops loyal to President Kabila attacked the compound of his rival, Vice-President Bemba, safely evacuating 14 foreign ambassadors who had found themselves in a combat zone in Kinshasa. Spanish legionnaires and Uruguayan UN ‘blue helmets’ aided the operation, which included the use of Belgian B-Hunter UAVs for reconnaissance. ‘This action, led by the UN, saved the electoral process,» said EUFOR Commander Major-General Damay.
The fighting between the Kabila and Bemba factions had begun the previous day, just before the country’s Independent Electoral Commission announced the preliminary results of the first round of presidential elections, held on July 30. At least 23 people were killed in the clashes, which marred what had otherwise been remarkably peaceful elections — the first free polls in the former Belgian African colony in more than four decades.
Kabila took 44.8% of the vote, just short of the 50% needed for outright victory, while Bemba gained 20.03%. The two candidates were due to face each other in run-off (face to face) elections on October 29.
When the fighting broke out, European reinforcements consisting of three helicopters – two armed French Gazelles and a Cougar — were quickly airlifted from Gabon to Kinshasa, along with German and Dutch paratroopers. They joined the three German CH-53GSs already there, which wore prominent EUFOR markings.
On August 21, Kabila’s presidential guard attacked Bemba’s compound, where the 14 ambassadors where meeting the Vice-President, and destroyed his private Mi-8 helicopter, which had been parked beside the Congo river. The scene was observed by a Belgian B-Hunter, which relayed real-time day/night video surveillance back to EUFOR tactical headquarters at N’Dolo airport. The UAV also helped to co-ordinate the diplomats’ exit under a combined EUFOR-MONUC operation. A B-Hunter filmed most of the incident, including the destruction of Bemba’s Hip by a few RPG-7 rounds. A UAV again observed the situation in Kinshasa on September 18, when a mysterious fire broke out at Bemba’s party headquarters, which also houses two TV stations belonging to the vice-president, a former rebel leader.
On July 28, two days before the first round in the presidential election, a B-Hunter was lost during a test flight to a ‘lucky shot’ from a lone gunman. The UAV was completing a three-hour ‘shakedown sortie’ on July 28 when it passed over marshland at 1,300ft (400m) not far from N’Dolo, and was shot down by an unidentified gunman using a Kalashnikov AK-47. The bullets struck the wing root, causing the wing to fold up. A Belgian military investigation team found that the bullet had hit the drone on its left-hand side, entered the fuselage, and impacted the wing spar. The crash injured six people on the ground and set fire to a house.
UAV flights resumed a few days later and a replacement aircraft was sent to the DRC in mid-August — from the Belgian defence force’s Air Component 80th UAV Squadron — to restore the UAV detachment to full strength. The loss reduced Belgium’s B-Hunter fleet to a total of 16 from an original 18: one aircraft had been lost in an accident at Elsenborn, their home base in Belgium, on May 5.
Another drone, a small German Aladdin, was lost in early September when it crashed in the Congo river.
The EU also has an advisory and assistance mission in the DRC for security reform (EUSEC — RD CONGO) and a police mission in Kinshasa (EUPOL Kinshasa), both operating within the framework of the European Defence and Security Policy (ESDP).
All EU military operations other than EUFOR-RD Congo rely on NATO support under what are known as the ‘Berlin Plus’ arrangements, which allow the EU ready access to the Alliance’s collective capabilities and assets. This was the case during the larger Operation Althea in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where 6,500 European soldiers took over from the NATO-led SFOR (Stabilisation Force) in December 2004.