Sat, May 17, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Violence erupts in Congo

MORTARS AND MACHETES Rival militias battling for control are spreading terror and mayhem, while the UN warns of a possible genocide in the troubled area


Fighting raged outside the UN compound sheltering 10,000-plus terrorized civilians against ethnic fighting in Bunia on Wednesday. UN authorities reported 10 dead and 100 wounded in that morning's battle alone.


Fleeing civilians jammed roads out of an eastern Congo city by the thousands to escape rival ethnic militias battling for control with mortars and machetes.

More than 10,000 frightened residents were gathered yesterday around a UN compound in Bunia and the nearby airport, seeking the protection of 625 Uruguayan troops stationed there.

At least 100 people have been confirmed killed in the fighting, including scores slain at a parish church where they had sought refuge. The chaos has made it impossible to determine the overall toll.

UN officials and others have warned of possible genocide in Bunia and elsewhere in the Ituri province, where the rival Hema and Lendu tribes have been fighting since Uganda pulled out the last of its 6,000 troops on May 7.

Hemas, traditionally cattle-raisers, and Lendus, predominantly farmers, have grappled for centuries for land and other resources in east Congo. The rivalry has become more bloody because Ituri province around Bunia is rich with gold, and neighboring nations that became involved in wars in the Congo in the 1990s -- Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia -- had armed both sides as proxy militias.

The armies have withdrawn as part of a series of peace deals, but Uganda had warned that the final troop withdrawal would leave a security vacuum.

On Thursday, Congo's president and the factions' leaders began talks over easing the violence. UN workers, meanwhile, appealed to the crowds swarming its compound to move to the UN-controlled airport where thousands more have sought safety. They were offered a UN escort for the trip.

A UN commander tried to negotiate a 24-hour ceasefire to allow for the relocations, UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said in New York. It was not clear if that accounted for the easing of fighting.

People in Bunia also took advantage of a lull in fighting on Thursday to flee homes where many had been trapped for a week.

Aid workers flying over Bunia saw "a massive column of people" streaming toward Beni, 160km to the southwest, said Gemma Swart, a spokeswoman of a British aid group, Oxfam.

"They estimated that between 30,000 and 60,000 people are on that road alone," Swart said on Thursday by telephone from Goma, 370km southwest of Bunia.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has appealed for more troop contributions for an international security force. Britain and France say they are weighing specific requests. Eckhard said others also have expressed interest in sending troops.

On Wednesday, rocket-propelled grenades hit near the base, killing five people, Eckhard said.

In Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital of Tanzania, Congo President Joseph Kabila and leaders of the tribal factions opened urgently convened talks to stem the bloodshed.

"The talks are at an early stage ... but there is optimism," Kabila spokesman Mulegwa Zihindula said.

"We are ready to negotiate with everybody," said Thomas Lubanga, leader of the key Hema militia, which sees Kabila's government as supporting its rivals.

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