Peace hopes rise as Congolese militia group lays down arms
KINSHASA, March 8 (AFP) - Nearly 4,000 members of one of the half-dozen armed bands operating in Democratic Republic of Congo's violence-ridden Ituri region have begun to lay down their arms in a move hailed as a breakthrough.
"This is the first time that a whole group has agreed to join the disarmament process," Benoit Molondo, an official of the National Demobilisation Commission (Conader), told AFP.
"It is a remarkable step forward and we hope it will motivate those who are still dithering."
Molondo said the Congolese People's Armed Forces (FAPC) began handing in their weapons on Sunday following a visit to their base at Aru, in the north of the northeastern region, by provincial governor Theo Baruti and local military commander General Joseph Padiri Bulendu.
Molondo said that more than 700 government troops had been deployed in Aru to recover the weapons and to ensure the security of the disarmed militia pending the next step in the process laid down by the national disarmament programme.
The demobilised FAPC troops would either be taken to an official "transit site" at Mahagi, 100 kilometres (65 miles) away, where they would formally opt to join the government army or return to civilian life, or be dealt with at Aru itself.
FAPC secretary general Kaninda Nkole confirmed that the militia had disarmed in line with a pledge by Ituri's warlords made in May last year at Kinshasa.
In December five militia leaders, including the FAPC's Jerome Kakwavu, were made brigadiers in the national army, but the violence in Ituri has worsened.
On February 25 nine Bangladeshi members of the United Nations peacekeeping forces in the region were killed in an ambush in an area controlled by the Nationalist Integrationist Front (FNI).
The UN hit back, killing at least 50 militiamen, while FNI chief Floribert Ndjabu and two of his top aides were arrested in Kinshasa. The group's military commander, Etienne Lona, surrendered to UN forces in Ituri.
Kinshasa also announced it would be stepping up military efforts to end the violence, which is largely ethnically based, in the region rich in gold, uranium and oil.
The fighting sent more than 70,000 refugees fleeing to already crowded camps last week, increasing the threat of epidemics and crime. It also risks causing a future food shortage as the planting season for crops should now be starting, according to aid groups.
The government's disarmament programme in Ituri began in September following the massacre of hundreds of civilians by militias representing the minority Hema and majority Lendu people.
It aims to disband 15,000 fighters held responsible for the deaths of more than 50,000 people and the displacement of half a million since 1999.
But this is only 10 percent of the estimated 150,000 guerrillas active throughout the vast country despite the end of the 1999-2003 war which drew in the forces of half a dozen other African states.
A UN observer in Kinshasa said the latest violence in Ituri had angered international aid organisations and donors, which had demanded action.
The World Bank has provided 200 million dollars (150 million euros) to fund the demobilisation programme, which has so far been confined to Ituri and had only limited success.
The observer described the latest developments as "very positive", but it remained to be seen if they would persuade other armed groups to follow suit.
According to the United Nations, many fighters would like to give up but fear their leaders, while the interests of officials in Kinshasa are also a factor.
Copyright (c) 2005 Agence France-Presse
Received by NewsEdge Insight: 03/08/2005 07:08:12
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