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U.N. calls off operation after Congo troops mutiny

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U.N. blue helmets fight alongside a Congolese army that is ill-disciplined, unequipped and seldom paid.

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Democratic Republic of Congo
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KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) -- U.N. peacekeepers on Friday canceled a joint operation with the Congolese army against ethnic militia fighters after dozens of army commandos mutinied and ransacked a U.N. base, a U.N. spokesman said.

The Congolese army earlier ordered hundreds of its commandos to withdraw from the operation and return to base following the mutiny on Wednesday in which some of the troops fired on their own general and a U.N. general as they tried to end the dispute.

The soldiers began their mutiny during an operation against ethnic militia fighters in Ituri district in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"The operation has been canceled. MONUC [U.N.] forces are falling back. The operation could not continue in these conditions," U.N. military spokesman Maj. Hans-Jakob Reichen said.

"The aim of the operation was to impose the rule of law. But with the lack of discipline they [the Congolese army] were showing, we were not sure how they would behave."

Gen. Padiri Bulenda, head of the army in Congo's northeast, said some 600 commandos would be withdrawn "because of the chaos they caused."

Just months ahead of planned elections, a stretched U.N. peacekeeping force is trying to pacify eastern Congo where thousands of gunmen roam although war officially ended in 2003.

But U.N. blue helmets fight alongside a chaotic national army that is ill-disciplined, unequipped and seldom paid.

The commandos are meant to be the elite amongst Kinshasa's army, which draws from tens of thousands of fighters from a variety of factions that fought in Congo's five-year war.

This week 500 U.N. peacekeepers and 2,500 Congolese soldiers launched the joint operation to seize the town of Tchei, in the northeast of Ituri where ethnic violence and a conflict over resources have killed 60,000 people since 1999.

Bad weather, rough terrain and news that militiamen were holding some 8,000 civilians as human shields in the town hampered the operation. Then mutiny and attacks on the U.N. forward base in Aveba, 40 miles (65 kilometers) southwest of Bunia, forced commanders to suspend it.

"The FARDC [Congolese army] has to get their stuff sorted out," Reichen said.

Tensions remain between different factions within the army and the integration of fighters into a cohesive unit is a long way behind schedule.

During the last year, the U.N. mission and diplomats have repeatedly called on the army hierarchy to ensure the millions of dollars released each month by the central bank are spent on paying and supplying soldiers rather than enriching officers.

But men serving in the lawless east continually complain they do not receive their estimated $12 per month salary and say they fight without food, water and medical support.

"Rumors had circulated that tens of thousands of dollars had been dispatched to Ituri for pay, but the general out there was now driving a brand new car," a senior U.N. official told Reuters. "This may have had something to do with the uprising."

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