Desperate times breed desperate measures: Congo, torn by scores more deaths in the convulsions of a "peace" deal that already has claimed more than 1,000 lives, is appealing for help to a United Nations that could not bring itself to intervene in Iraq. The United Nations, which has had an abysmal record in other peace-keeping missions, has a chance here to redeem itself. It should do so.
Women and their children have been hacked to death with machetes or killed by mortar rounds landing disturbingly close to the U.N. building in the northeastern town of Bunia, where 80 percent of 90,000 residents already have fled. Priests and refugees were slaughtered in an attack on a parish church where they sheltered. Civil administration has collapsed, and neither the police nor the U.N.'s thinly spread observation force of 625 Uruguayan soldiers has been able to stop the looting and violence.
This is a peace gone bad. It makes Iraq look like a day in the park. Ironically, the French -- who saw nothing in Saddam Hussein's behavior to justify armed intervention -- are the focus of the main U.N. appeal for help with a "temporary and ad hoc" deployment of peacekeeping troops.
Congolese President Joseph Kabila has opened talks in the neighboring Tanzanian commercial center of Dar es Salaam with members of the rival Lendu and Hema tribal factions, causing what may be only a temporary lull in ethnic fighting that took more than 1,000 lives in April and erupted in new fury on May 7, when Uganda completed withdrawing its 6,000-man occupying force as part of the deal that ended a five-year war involving six African nations -- and left behind an arsenal of weapons.
Scores more have died since then, and the British aid group Oxfam estimates that 30,000 to 60,000 refugees are now on the long road to Beni in the southwest. Relief workers are hard-pressed to provide water and other supplies. Kabila's administration in Kinshasa has appealed for a strong U.N. intervention force -- primarily a battalion-sized, thousand-man French deployment -- instead of the observation force now in place.
Britain is considering U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's appeal for forces. France, while preparing its deployment, has in turn approached other African nations, India and Pakistan. Whatever consultations occur, they should not delay a response.
The long war in Congo claimed an estimated 3 million lives, most of them civilians. A negotiated peace was supposed to end the fighting, but both the local militias that sided with either Uganda or Rwanda in eastern Congo are now at each other's throats, and civilians are once again caught by the violence. An estimated 10,000 are crowded in and around the U.N.-held airport and base in Bunia.
A humanitarian crisis looms, even if the war has stopped. There is a strong case for international intervention. This time, it should trigger no debate.