DUNGU, Congo — Early in the morning the warnings came: Rebels notorious for vicious attacks on civilians were advancing on this eastern Congolese town of thatched roof huts along the winding Kibali River.
Aid workers alerted nearby U.N. peacekeepers, but for hours no one came.
So tens of thousands of townspeople fled — on foot, on bicycles, on motorcycles, anything to escape. Some did not get out on time and were slaughtered on the spot. Others were abducted and killed in the bush.
The failure to protect the people of Dungu and other towns from attack by the Lord's Resistance Army is a sign of the collapse of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in this sprawling Central African nation.
More than 1,500 civilians have been slaughtered since September, many hacked and clubbed to death in unspeakably brutal attacks, according to humanitarian groups. Aid workers and others say the U.N. force and Congolese military received almost daily alerts as the death toll mounted and the rebel offensives multiplied.
Critics say the 17,000-member U.N. mission has foundered despite being the largest and most expensive in the world — and with the strongest mandate ever issued to U.N. troops to use force to protect civilians.
U.N. officials say they simply do not have enough boots on the ground to perform effectively in Congo, a country more than twice the size of California and Texas combined, but with only 300 miles of paved roads.
With a population of more than 58 million, there is only about one peacekeeper for every 3,400 people.
'Can we do better?'
During a tour last week of towns laid waste by the rebels in the remote Haut-Uele region, the top U.N. diplomat for humanitarian aid, John Holmes, said the peacekeepers have been given an impossible task.
"Can we do better? Yes. The fact that I am here is an admission that we need to do a lot more — more resources, more capacity on the ground, better security," Holmes told The Associated Press.
"In an area like this, where attacks are coming from all directions, it's impossible to protect every civilian. Even the big towns aren't particularly safe," he said.
Over nearly a decade, Congo's people have suffered through back-to-back civil wars that devastated the nation. Adding to the misery, the Lord's Resistance Army's more than 20-year insurgency in Uganda spilled over into Congo about five years ago.
Medecins Sans Frontieres holds the U.N. peacekeepers responsible for the hundreds of civilians killed by the Ugandan rebels, blaming the force for not doing more to protect them. And other agencies have joined the outcry.
The U.N. troops "are mere spectators in the massacres of these people whom they should be defending," Fides, the Catholic missionary news agency, wrote last week.
In July, Congo's army — supported by U.N. helicopters and planes — deployed more than 3,000 troops with a plan to contain the rebels in their hideouts near the border with Sudan. They hoped to encircle them, cut off their food and weapons supply, then flush out the rebels so they could be captured.
The U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA, which had set up an office in the town of Dungu in September, warned the U.N. peacekeepers of the risk of rebel reprisals on the civilian population, according to an official involved in setting up the office. But the U.N. force did nothing.
The rebels had killed only two people between January and mid-September, according to U.N. humanitarian and other aid workers. But after the army launched its offensive, the rebels struck as predicted and attacked some 20 villages on Sept. 17.
Slaughtered, raped and exploited
In some, every person was slaughtered, their heads smashed in with clubs, their throats slit with machetes or bayonets. In others, all the men were killed, and women and children were abducted to become sex slaves and forced labor.
A total of 620 civilians were killed between Sept. 17 and Dec. 24, according to aid groups. More than 900 others were slaughtered from Christmas until mid-January, although the toll is likely even higher, aid workers say.
After the September attacks, the people of Dungu rioted and attacked a U.N. base, setting ablaze a U.N. vehicle and storming the compound. U.N. troops abandoned the base, which now is littered with goat droppings and the vehicle's burnt-out carcass.
Video: In Congo, reclaiming youth from war A Moroccan peacekeeper told an AP photographer the 240 U.N. troops now have no contact with the people they were sent to protect; they stay in their new camp at an airstrip, a 20-minute drive from town, according to the soldier, who would not give his name because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
After the rebel attack on Dungu in the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 1, the peacekeepers finally arrived at 4 p.m. to evacuate aid workers from the town, U.N. officials said. By then, the Congolese troops had driven out the rebels.
"MONUC did nothing for us the day we were attacked," said Edoxie Babe, a market vendor, using the French acronym for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo. "I saw MONUC come in only in the afternoon, and then only to get the white foreigners to safety."
U.N. deputy mission chief Ross Mountain said the peacekeepers plan to set up protection units at their military bases to improve communication with and defense of civilians. The U.N. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich, said the U.N. also is preparing a rapid reaction force to swiftly intervene in conflicts.
The belated action comes after the head of the U.N. mission in Congo, Alan Doss, pleaded for months for more soldiers. The U.N. Security Council in November approved 3,000 more troops for Congo, but only Bangladesh has responded with an offer of about 900 troops.
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