Security in Congolese town crumbles despite presence of troops

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

BUNIA, Congo -- Despite the arrival of 500 French troops more than a week ago, 48 people have been abducted in nighttime raids by tribal fighters and at least nine noncombatants have been killed, the United Nations spokesman said on Monday.

There was no apparent pattern to the abductions since the French arrived June 6, and the assailants have not been identified, said Manodje Mounoubai, the U.N. official. But local people blame them on tribal fighters from several factions seeking to control Bunia, the capital of resource-rich Ituri province.

"The security situation in Bunia is worsening," Mounou-bai said.

The U.N. mission is also investigating reports that there are mass graves in the town. The body of one person has been found, and five people escaped attacks, he said.

Eight other people have been killed in separate incidents, including a man who was hacked to death Sunday. Red Cross workers buried the man, Alphonse Musubi, under mango and eucalyptus trees in a deserted village on the outskirts of town.

French troops shot and killed two tribal fighters who fired on them during a patrol Monday afternoon, said Maj. Xavier Pons, a spokesman for the emergency force said.

"The multinational force will respond firmly to all armed people threatening the life of the population and soldiers of the multinational force," Pons said.

Bunia -- devastated by fighting between the Hema and Lendu tribes in recent weeks -- is now controlled by the Union of Congolese Patriots, or UPC, a Hema militia group.

UPC leader Thomas Lubanga denied his troops were involved in the abductions and killings. He said he was meeting his commanders Monday to discuss the situation and would be pulling his troops -- many of them children -- out of town and into camps where they could be better controlled.

The French-led emergency force is under a U.N. mandate to secure Bunia and its airport, and to provide security for displaced people and aid agencies.

A 750-strong U.N. force in Bunia since April has a mandate to shoot in self-defense and has not tried to stem the violence between Hema and Lendu factions. The French-led force is authorized to shoot to kill, but analysts and residents say it also should be mandated to disarm tribal fighters and demilitarize the town.

So far, France has deployed some 500 troops, but Pons said the force might not be strong enough to secure Bunia for another two weeks.

Bunia has been the scene of some of the worst atrocities in the 5-year war in Congo, which erupted in August 1998 when neighboring Uganda and Rwanda sent troops to support rebels seeking to oust then-President Laurent Kabila. The foreign troops, including those backing Kabila, have withdrawn, but fighting continues in eastern and northeastern Congo between rebel and tribal factions.

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