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Congo Massacre Probe Pullback Seen as Human Rights Setback

By Craig Turner
Los Angeles Times

The decision to pull back a U.N. investigation into the massacre of refugees in the Congo - after the government there refused to cooperate with it - deals a setback to the Clinton administration's Africa policy and to U.N. efforts to put human rights at the center of the international agenda.

The Congolese obstruction of the investigation came despite the efforts of Bill Richardson, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who traveled twice to Africa last year in attempts to get President Laurent Kabila of the Congo to cooperate in the probe. It also is a blow to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who changed U.N. policy in an attempt to overcome Kabila's objections.

The United Nations began withdrawing its 26-member team Wednesday and expects to make a formal announcement Friday after the Congolese government officially is informed. Annan said the inquiry will continue but will be based at the U.N.'s European headquarters in Geneva rather than in the Congo.

"The search for the truth will continue," Annan said. He denied that the effort had been a failure and said it illustrates "how difficult it is to get to the facts, to get governments to cooperate in these situations where human rights are at stake. We will probably have to think of other sorts of creative means to get to the truth."

The reversal comes as the administration has drawn new attention to its Africa policy with President Clinton's recent visit to the continent.

Richardson was Washington's point man in the move to embrace Kabila last year as his rebel army supported by forces from neighboring Rwanda and Uganda overthrew longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Richardson met with Kabila even before he had displaced Mobutu, and, according to a senior U.S. official, helped establish an ongoing U.S. communications link with Kabila's forces during the final drive to the capital of Kinshasa.

After Mobutu's fall, State Department officials characterized Kabila as one of a new generation of Central African leaders supportive of market economies and pluralistic societies, if not enamored of multiparty democracies.

But Kabila has broken his promises to Richardson and Annan to cooperate in the U.N. human-rights investigation and cracked down on peaceful opposition to his rule. Recent reports by the United Nations and private human-rights groups have compared his human-rights abuses to those carried out by Mobutu.

American and European government officials have warned Kabila that economic aid to the country may be conditioned on his cooperation with the agreement.

In appointing the U.N. investigative team last year, Annan took the unusual step of replacing the expert already appointed to conduct the probe because Kabila had objected to his presence. Annan was accused by human-rights groups of caving in to U.S. pressure to accommodate Kabila.

According to U.N. reports, Congolese officials intimidated witnesses, organized demonstrations to block investigative access to suspected mass graves and delayed providing necessary security and transport. Christopher Harland, a Canadian member of the team, was detained overnight by authorities.

U.S. and U.N. officials have expressed concern for the safety of witnesses who have talked to investigators once the team is removed.