By Simon Denye
NAIROBI, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Thousands of people have been killed and more than 150,000 have fled from ethnic fighting in northeastern Congo, an aid agency said on Thursday.
Medecins sans Frontieres said it was "deeply concerned about the rapidly worsening humanitarian situation" around the town of Bunia, where the effects of the country's civil war have been exacerbated by fighting between Hema and Lendu ethnic groups.
"We estimate that a few thousand people have been killed," MSF country manager Jannes van der Wijk told Reuters by satellite phone from the Congolese town of Goma.
Van der Wijk said estimates were based
partly on accounts from local missionaries and churches, and from the number
of wounded turning up at health clinics. But precise figures were difficult
to obtain because of the inaccesibility of the area.
The conflict has also forced more than 150,000 people to flee the area en masse, MSF added in a statement.
"Many villages have been totally razed to the ground," it said. "The fields which were used for crop cultivation lie totally deserted."
Long running conflicts between the pastoralist Hema and the Lendu farmers mirror the relationship between the minority Tutsis and majority Hutus in nearby Rwanda -- where 800,000 people, mainly Tutsis, were killed in the 1994 genocide.
TENSIONS AGGRAVATED BY CIVIL WAR IN DRC
The Lendu are more numerous in the area,
which borders Uganda, but the Hema are richer and own most of the land.
Tensions between the two groups have been aggravated by a 17-month-old civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with the Hema getting more influence under a new rebel administration and claiming more land, aid workers say.
Arms have also poured into the rebel-held east of the Congo from Rwanda and Uganda, who have backed the three rebel factions fighting to overthrow President Laurent Kabila.
Aid workers say the poorer Lendu often use traditional weapons like bows and arrows, spears and machetes, while many of the Hema are armed with modern firearms.
"The way of fighting is slowly changing from traditional weapons to firepower," van der Wijk said.
Women and children have not been spared, he added. "We have seen a lot of children who have been wounded by machetes."
Bunia is the headquarters of one of the rebel factions fighting in the Congo, a Ugandan-backed wing of the Congolese Rally for Democracy led by Ernest Wamba dia Wamba.
Wamba said on Wednesday a renegade Ugandan commander had been dismissed for hiring out soldiers to Hema leaders, while the Lendu had been supported by "infiltrators" loyal to Kabila.
Putting the death toll at 350 in the last two weeks, Wamba said a battalion of Ugandan troops had been stationed outside the town to try to calm the situation down but admitted there were not enough soldiers to police the whole area.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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