French troops in helicopter foil massacre in Congo village

Wednesday, August 6, 2003

NYANDA, Congo -- French troops on helicopter patrol over the lush green savannah of troubled northeastern Congo stopped a massacre in progress Tuesday in a remote village, although nine villagers died, residents said.

The attack began before dawn when Lendu tribal fighters armed with automatic weapons and machetes raided this tiny village of the Hema tribe from two directions, chief Nguna Manasse said.

The attackers came in two waves, Manasse said. The first, dressed in military uniforms, fired on fleeing villagers; the second, in civilian clothes, hacked the wounded with machetes.

"There were so many of them, I could not count because we were running," Manasse said after he and other residents ventured back to the village 12 miles south of Bunia, the capital of troubled Ituri province.

The sound of the helicopters drove the attackers off, he said.

Manasse said it wasn't clear who the uniformed attackers were -- although Lendu tribal fighters often don uniforms taken from rivals. But there was no doubt that the men in civilian clothes armed with machetes were Lendus.

Tribal fighting

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in tribal fighting in resource-rich northeastern Congo since a rebellion backed by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda broke out in August 1998. Although the main rebel groups have reached peace deals with the government in Kinshasa, 1,000 miles to the west, and have joined the administration, violence over land and cattle and gold and power continues in Ituri.

The disputes go back generations, but they turned lethal when the encroaching foreign armies and their rebel allies armed tribal fighters.

Col. Gerard Dubois, spokes-man for the French-led 1,100-strong international force based in Bunia, said after the helicopters frightened the attackers off, 150 more French troops went to the village in armored personnel carriers and secured the area.

Helicopters buzzed overhead as huts still smouldered in the late afternoon haze, and villagers led the way through cornfields to the fresh graves of the dead.

Manasse said the raiders also made off with 250 head of cattle.

"When the French go," he said. "We will leave the village."

The French-led force, which now includes some Swedish, Belgian and British troops as well, arrived in June with a mandate to secure Bunia; it is scheduled to depart by Sept. 1.

The international force went in after 750 U.N. troops with a weak mandate were unable to stanch fighting for control of the town after the Ugandan occupiers pulled out, and more than 500 people were killed.

Critics said the international emergency force would be ineffectual unless it moved out of town and into the province.

The U.N. Security Council has since beefed up the mandate of its force in Bunia, which is being bolstered by troops from Bangladesh, who are to number 1,200 by the time the French depart.

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