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U N committed to protecting Congo elections-Annan

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KISANGANI, Congo, Mar 23 (Reuters) The United Nations is committed to ensuring peaceful elections this year in Democratic Republic of Congo, U.N. chief Kofi Annan today said as he visited peacekeeping troops in the violence-prone east.

On a morale-boosting trip to the local U.N. headquarters in the eastern town of Kisangani, Annan said the world body's biggest peacekeeping force was ready to help the Congolese people leave behind years of war, dictatorship and chaos.

The former Belgian colony plans to hold its first democratic elections in 40 years in June, drawing a line under a 1998-2003 war that dragged in half a dozen foreign armies.

''We are going to work with the Congolese people and the government to make sure we make progress and consolidate peace and stability,'' Annan said as he met U.N. and Congolese officials and visited a local electoral commission.

''They want peace. They are fed up with war. They have suffered enough and don't want to go back to the destruction and misery of the past,'' the U.N. Secretary-General said.

The U.N.'s 17,000-strong Congo peacekeeping mission, known by its French acronym MONUC, is thinly stretched across the vast central African country, which is the size of western Europe.

Operating alongside an often unreliable Congolese army, U.N.

troops have been battling marauding rebels and renegade militias -- remnants of the five-year war -- who still terrorise civilians in the mineral-rich east.

An estimated 4 million people have been killed in Congo's war and subsequent violence, most through hunger and disease.

Twenty U.N. peacekeepers have died in combat in Congo in the last year, including eight Guatemalan elite troops gunned down by Ugandan rebels in the eastern jungles in January.

''MONUC forces must remain vigilant and work with the Congolese army,'' Annan said as U.N. commanders vowed to respond firmly to any attempts to violently disrupt the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections on June 18.

WARNING TO ''SPOILERS'' ''Any spoilers of the electoral process in the east will be dealt with within our capabilities ... We will be pro-active,'' Major-General Patrick Cammaert, commander of U.N. forces in eastern Congo, told Reuters.

U.N. officials said that as Annan visited Kisangani, U.N.

soldiers were engaged in 16 separate peacekeeping operations across North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri provinces. There had been clashes with rebels on Wednesday south of Bunia.

The U.N. chief visited the volatile east a day after the European Union agreed in principle to deploy a military mission led by Germany to help the U.N. contingent protect the polls.

The plan would involve putting 400 to 450 troops into Congo under French command, with 800 to 1,000 on standby outside the country, an EU official said. Troops would be deployed two to three weeks before polls and stay for about four months.

Added to the logistical challenge of organising polls in a country lacking basic roads and communications infrastructure, there were political worries as well.

The biggest rebel group from the war, the Rwandan-backed RCD-Goma, has threatened to pull out of the transitional government and polls in a row over parliamentary constituencies.

Thousands of supporters of the main political opposition party marched through the capital Kinshasa on Wednesday, taking advantage of Annan's visit to push their electoral demands.

But the U.N. chief said he was optimistic: ''Last time I came here was about four years go, and the situation was quite different, you could feel the tension in the air.'' ''I think we can tell the difference now,'' he said.

Reuters SY DB2244

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