THE decision of the UK and French foreign ministers to undertake a joint mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo, currently facing civil war, is to be welcomed. When they arrive David Miliband and Bernard Couchner will find other Western diplomats already there - UN, EU and US special envoys. Although the South African president is also due, there is thus far little sign of Africans finding an African solution to the Congo's apparently endless problems.

The latest fighting has its roots in the 1994 massacre of ethnic Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda by Hutus. General Laurent Nkuda who leads the Congolese rebels is a Tutsi and claims that his minority people in eastern Congo are at risk from the Rwandan Hutis who have established close links with the Congolese government; he is a charismatic evangelical Christian. Miliband and Couchner will be trying to establish whether a European Union peace-keeping force should be sent to the Congo to help the overstretched UN force which is trying to prevent political and ethnic brush fires all over a country the size of Europe from developing into serious conflagrations.

The Congo, rich in minerals and oil but with few other assets, has been trouble since Belgium botched its decolonisation in 1960 and Joseph Mobutu seized power in 1965, renaming it Zaire. Laurent Kabil became president in 1997 and changed the name again. But nothing much else has changed in a country that has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.


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