In the less-than-sovereign republic of Congo, U.N. blue berets are trying to figure out just how warm their welcome really is.

On the sidewalks of this war-weary capital, the peacekeeping monitors are greeted with nods, smiles and, once, even cheers. Congolese say they are indeed grateful that the United Nations has dispatched observers to monitor the precarious cease-fire deal signed four months ago by the nations that for 15 months have used their vast, mineral-rich country as a combination battleground and export zone.

But those same streets recently echoed with the chants of demonstrators angrily denouncing the United Nations.

In the coming year, an ultimate peacekeeping complement of 20,000 might be mobilized for Congo, a force a variety of officials say is far more likely to be supplied by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) than the United Nations. But U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian who has upbraided the international community for ignoring Africa, already has recommended that the U.N. observer force be increased to 500.

But for weeks President Laurent Kabila refused to guarantee the security of U.N. advance teams scouting likely monitoring positions, relenting only after a stern visit from Annan's special envoy. Meanwhile, the government mounted a military recruiting drive, announced a curfew, closed the Congo River to night traffic and ratcheted up its rhetoric against "aggressors," a reference to the rebels they have been fighting.

Mixed messages are nothing new in Kinshasa, where freshly hung banners and nightly television spots bid an admittedly confused population to "Fight for Peace." But Congolese say the complex reception accorded the preliminary peacekeeping unit in fact reflects the two minds of the Congolese on the United Nations. It is a national ambivalence born of hard experience.

The last time U.N. peacekeepers came to Congo, in the post-independence chaos of 1960, the international force stayed three years and got caught up in civil war. The huge new nation was a coveted prize during the Cold War, and felt toyed with by the Soviet Union and the United States. The latter even sent a CIA assassin to eliminate the charismatic, left-leaning prime minister. And although political rivals killed Patrice Lumumba first, Congolese are reminded that he was martyred on the U.N.'s watch.

"They were accomplices," said Andre Simba, 38, a political science student at Kinshasa University.

So it is that in the heart of a continent that today complains of being ignored by a world rushing among crises in Kosovo, East Timor and now Chechnya, the Democratic Republic of Congo wants only a useful level of international interest in its problem.

Because that problem, Congolese emphasize, is simply making Congo their own again.

"If they focus on our country, we can find a solution," said Zacharie Kazadi, 41, referring to the international community. "But if they come for their own interests, there won't be any solution."

U.N. officials say they could not agree more.

"We understand harking back to the 1960s, but it's really not relevant," said Col. James Ellery, the British commander of the U.N. military Observer Mission in Congo. "Whatever happened in the 1960s was post-colonial Cold War. The conditions are completely different now."

Indeed, the belligerents fighting over Congo this time are African.

Three years ago, at least five countries helped Kabila, an ineffectual career rebel, to depose dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who with consistent U.S. sponsorship ruled the country he had renamed Zaire for three decades. Last year, when Kabila's primary sponsors soured on him, new alliances took shape as even more of Africa entered the fray.

By the time the so-called Lusaka accord was signed July 10 by Congo and its allies Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia, and the rebels' allies of Rwanda and Uganda, the number of foreign nations with forces fighting in Congo numbered eight. Besides the signatories, Chad, Sudan and Burundi also have troops on the ground. Several--most notably Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and Angola--also pursued campaigns against rebel groups that had taken sanctuary in a huge neighbor that after decades of misrule barely managed a central government, never mind a border patrol.

"We don't have an army," said Congo Finance Minister Mawampanga Mwana Nanga, explaining why his government, shortly after signing a peace accord, announced a military recruiting drive. "We have to build an army."

Restoring Congo's territorial integrity was the central tenet of the Lusaka accord, named for the Zambian capital, where it was signed. The agreement calls for all parties to cease fire and prepare to surrender their positions to a peacekeeping force organized by the Organization of African Unity, the primary sponsor of the accord. Along the way, the militias that carried out the 1994 Rwanda genocide are to be disarmed.

The OAU asked for the United Nations' help in monitoring the accord. The Security Council responded by authorizing a 90-member delegation that has set up headquarters in an abandoned villa on Kinshasa's main boulevard, a block away from the high-rise headquarters of the controversial 1960 mission.

"The world stands ready," said Ellery, the commander.

But how ready is Congo?

Opposition politician Kabambe Mwebwe, of the Congolese Patriotic Front, sighed that "in talking about peace, they're waging a campaign for war."

The finance minister waved off the rhetoric.

"All that is for internal consumption," said Mawampanga, wheeling through the shady streets of the capital. Without a standing army, and with reports that the Angola rebel group UNITA is being driven north by the government, the public must be stirred to vigilance, he said.

"This city is like Paris," said Mawampanga. "There are more than 1,000 bands here. People like to enjoy life. If you don't mobilize people, they will just lie there."

But it is not all talk. Fighting has flared in the country's north, endangering the cease-fire even before monitors can be put in place. Each side accuses the other, but the heaviest clashes have been reported near where military sources say Kabila has been shipping the recent arms purchases that some say account for his government's new boldness.

A former Congolese prime minister cautioned Kabila against relying on the new weapons, however. Likulia Bolongo, who was Mobutu's defense minister for most of the 1996-1997 war, said Kabila needs to remember what brought him to power, which was that the people were tired of Mobutu's rule.

"I bought jet fighters. I bought MiG-23s. I bought armed helicopters. And I lost the war," Bolongo said. "When there's social unrest, it's difficult to win. It's the same feeling today."

Ordinary Congolese agreed. Kinshasa residents repeatedly brought up another clause of the Lusaka accord: the requirement for a "national dialogue" aimed at deciding the shape of Congo's ad hoc government. Presided over by an independent mediator, such a dialogue may prove unkind to Kabila, but because Lusaka included no provision for implementing its outcome, the result is almost certain to leave his government in power.

That likelihood provided the primary incentive for Kabila to sign the peace accord that the U.S. Institute of Peace called "the last exit on the region's highway to hell." In Congo, it also provided at least the opportunity for Congolese to express themselves on the future of their country.

"We spent 32 years under dictatorship, in chaos, believing that with Kabila's coming we can enjoy a better life and development in all respects," said student Yves Mayemba. "They gave us promises, and we spend two years with these guys in the dark.

"We still don't know where we're going. It's a mystery."

CAPTION: Outside U.N. peacekeeping headquarters in Kinshasa, David Hannah, a U.N. monitor and a British army major, stands beneath a banner that reads, "Peace Has a Price," and reminds Congolese of the sacrifices associated with war.