Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – Last week an outpost along the Semuliki River belonging to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) was attacked by a massive rebel force in the northern Kivu region which resulted in 15 U.N. peacekeepers killed and more than 53 wounded in one of the worst attacks on a U.N. peace-keeping mission in years.
The outpost which was manned by soldiers from the Tanzanian Army assigned to the MONUSCO direct action intervention brigade known as the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB). Was attacked en mass by a large rebel force reportedly from an “ultraconservative” Islamist rebel group known as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) which is known to be operating out of secret base camps in the Semuliki National Forest region of northern Kivu.
So sudden and brutal was the attack that it sent peristaltic waves of horror and outrage through the U.N. lead peacekeeping mission which was soon followed by demands for answers from both the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres and Tanzania’s President John Pombe Magufuli as to what occurred at the remote riverside outpost that fateful Thursday evening.
The initial investigation report was submitted two days later. It described a hellscape of overwhelming firepower brought to bear onto the small outpost of peacekeepers from which there seemed no escape. The Tanzanian ‘blue helmets’ would be pitched in a near hand-to-hand battle of survival that would last 13 long, bloody hours.
The area where the U.N. military outpost resides is situated some 27 miles southeast of a larger U.N. compound within the city of Beni. The Tanzanian peacekeepers of U.N.’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) established this combat outpost to regain control of the Mbau-Kamango road which snakes along the riverbanks of the Semuliki river in Northeastern Congo from the Islamist rebel group, the Allied Democratic Forces who were increasing their roadway banditry and hit and run attacks along the roadway. On October 7th of this year the ADF attacked a trader caravan as they traveled the thoroughfare trade route that leads to the Ugandan border killing 26.
Two days later the ADF attacked a MONUSCO patrol along the same roadway which killed two peacekeepers. This prompted both the Congolese Army (FARDC) and the MONUSCO led FIB to conduct an offensive in which on October 13th, after six days of fighting, they retook the roadway and established a larger military presence within the region by sending more FIB peacekeepers to the riverside outpost just off the Mbau-Kamango road.
The outpost is one of several built by the MONUSCO in an effort to get U.N. peacekeepers out of their heavily fortified bases in the larger cities and towns and interact more with the civilian population. In an effort to win “hearts and minds” the outpost was built with minimal to almost no defensive perimeter fortifications, instead of HESCO barriers, a single strand of razor wire mostly used to mark the perimeter of the encampment was placed around the camp to present an approachable feel to the locals.
MONUSCO called this a “protection through projection” approach, in which MONUSCO would deploy smaller groups of peacekeepers into hostile areas instead of staying inside large bases to build rapport with local communities. The outpost location wasn’t chosen strategically and was nestled right up against the Semuliki riverbank to its back with the roadway literally alongside the front of outpost perimeter.
The mood within the outpost which resembled more like a campground at some national park in the United States than a military forward operating base was relaxed as usual as the Tanzanian peacekeepers of the FIB were beginning to “stand down” for the day and the camp itself was prepared to cycled down the days activities as many of the soldiers were reported as walking around without weapons or what commonly referred to as being in an admin posture.
If anyone had a sense of impending danger, no one showed it, as they walked around the camp defenseless.
Then, according to reports, a cacophony of heavy machine gun fire erupted just next to the outpost in the direction of where a small Congolese Army (FARDC) platoon had set up right next to the outpost killing five FARDC soldiers, and sending the rest of the platoon running for the MONUSCO outpost.
Still the peacekeepers were slow to respond or even run for their weapons.
Confusion reigned as the Tanzanian soldiers saw a large force dressed in FARDC uniforms swarming all along their perimeter. The ADF rebels were wearing the uniforms of the Congolese Army and were rapidly and methodically encircling the small outpost on all three sides preparing to attack the camp with full force.
That confusion was shattered as the ADF rebels initiated their ambush with a volley of rocket-propelled grenades punctuated with heavy machine gun fire from all three corners of the encircled camp. The trap had been sprung and with that came death as screams of pain and fear bellowed from the peacekeepers being cut apart or killed as bullets and RPG shrapnel tore through the outpost.
At 5 p.m. the MONUSCO base in Beni received a frantic call for help from the Tanzanians who described being surrounded by a superior force and needed immediate help. Several minutes later the communications lines were severed, more than likely from an RPG round slamming into the generator control box right next to the entrance of the camp.
The MONUSCO base in Beni tried a few more times to raise the outpost on their radios and then in a bizarre decision chose not to scramble its attack helicopters they had in Beni, citing “weather conditions” as well as not having enough illumination due to both bad weather and it becoming night. Even though the U.N. attack helicopters and their pilots are supposedly trained to fly and equipped with night-vision equipment.
The first MONUSCO helicopter reconnaissance flight did not leave the airstrip in Beni until 7 a.m. the following morning. The Tanzanians, who were cut off from the main road, in desperate need of reinforcements, and now pushed up against the Semuliki riverbank came to the horrifying realization that they would have to fend for themselves in a bloody gun fight that would last for upwards of 13 hours.
The aftermath of the overwhelming ADF rebel attack left 15 peacekeepers dead 53 severely wounded and now reports from Tanzania People’s Defence Forces deputy commander, Lieutenant General James Mwakibolwa also resulted in three soldiers still missing and unaccounted for.
That Saturday in a press conference Tanzania’s President John Pombe Magufuli had this to say, “I am very shocked and saddened to hear of the deaths of our young, brave soldiers and heroes who lost their lives carrying out their peace mission in our neighbor the DRC.”
The attack on the outpost has many that have fought against and have observed the ADF in the past extremely concerned. This type of coordination with this amount of firepower being reported is highly irregular. The savagery and cold calculation of this attack prompted one FARDC officer to tell researchers with the non-profit Congo Research Group that he has, “been fighting the ADF here [North Kivu region] since 2014. But something has happened. They suddenly got a lot stronger.”
There are also signs within the carnage that indicate the intelligence reports from both Western intelligence agencies as well as Ugandan intelligence services may be correct in the fact that the ADF may have actually have been receiving weapons, equipment and guerrilla warfare training from the Somalia-based terror group Harakat al-Shabaab.
And this ADF attack on the MONUSCO outpost has all the traits of al-Shabaab insurgency tactics to include encircling compounds on three or all sides as well as infiltrating base camps and outposts in Somalia while wearing Somali National Army (SNA) or AMISOM uniforms.
The United Nations has promised a thorough investigation into this attack as to what went wrong and that in itself will take time. But what is certain is the Congolese Army and MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade mission and hopefully defensive posture will most assuredly be changing. Something sinister is brewing in eastern Congo, and it is only shaping up to become worse.
Feature image courtesy of United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
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