Sun, May 18, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Gunfire breaks Congolese peace deal

NO GO Residents of an under-fire town who have taken refuge in a UN camp said that signatures on paper mean nothing to tribes fighting a civil war


Hema militia soldiers, including a woman, play with grenades yesterday near the UN compound in Bunia in the Congo. Fighting in and around Bunia between armed militias linked to rival Hema and Lendu tribes was estimated by the UN to have killed hundreds of people in the past week.


Sporadic gunfire echoed in the hills surrounding a troubled north-eastern Congolese town, hours after rival factions battling for control of the area agreed to stop fighting.

The cease-fire deal between the rival Hema and Lendu tribes went into effect at the end of Friday, but it wasn't clear early yesterday how long it would hold. Thousands of frightened residents still sought refuge at a UN compound in Bunia and at a UN-controlled airport outside the city.

"The combatants will not voluntarily withdraw from Bunia because no group trusts the other to let go of Bunia first," said Bibishe Lofato, 26, who has spent five days at the UN compound in the town center. "We need peace, the people have suffered greatly."

Tens of thousands of people have fled Bunia since the latest fighting broke out May 7 after neighboring Uganda withdrew more than 6,000 troops as part of efforts to end five years of civil war. Uncounted scores of civilians have died in the clashes between rival Lendu and Hema tribal factions battling for control of Bunia, capital of the resource-rich Ituri province.

The UN Security Council on Friday demanded an end to the killings in Congo and urged Secretary-General Kofi Annan to put together an emergency international force to help end the violence.

Annan sent a letter to the council president, Pakistan's UN Ambassador Munir Akram, asking for help. The secretary-general has already asked France to lead the force and provide up to 1,000 troops. But Paris won't accept unless other nations join the force.

"This is an escalating and serious situation to which greater international attention is urgently needed," said Richard Grenell, spokesman for US Ambassador John Negroponte.

Tribal fighters armed with assault rifles and machetes -- many of them boys clad in T-shirts and sandals -- patrolled Bunia on Friday. Decomposing bodies still lay in the streets.

Lofato, who was sitting on a mattress squeezed among hundreds of others laid out on the muddy ground behind a barbed-wire fence in the compound, said only God could bring peace.

Others nearby tried to make the most of their predicament, selling ground nuts, sweet potatoes and other foods.

"The problem is they may talk nice out there and sign every piece of paper pushed in front of them, but when they come back here they will return to the same cycle of violence," said Pablo Walifoli, a 28-year-old Congolese radio technician among the thousands of people sheltering at the UN compound in the town center.

Five rival Lendu and Hema groups signed the peace agreement in Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital of neighboring Tanzania. The deal commits the warring factions to demilitarizing Bunia and confining their fighters to temporary quarters.

It also allows for the deployment of an international force in the region. Congolese President Joseph Kabila said that force was urgently needed.

"We are waiting for an international force, an international invention force that is supposed to deploy in order to make sure that no more massacres, no more fighting takes place," Kabila said in Dar es Salaam.

The Congolese government and Amos Namanga Ngongi, head of the UN mission in Congo, also signed.

UN authorities said Bunia remained volatile. On Friday, the UN flew in a few dozen extra troops to back the 750 Uruguayans based in the town. Brigadier General Roberto Martinelli, the deputy UN force commander in Congo, said the force would be increased by 100 soldiers by the end of the month.

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