NAIROBI (Reuters) - At least 350 people, many of them women and children, have been killed in two weeks of ethnic fighting around the eastern Congolese town of Bunia, a rebel leader said.
Simmering tension between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups over land rights boiled over into fighting with bows, arrows and machetes early this month, Ernest Wamba dia Wamba told Reuters on Wednesday from his Bunia headquarters.
''All the dead are civilians and there might be more than we know,'' Wamba said. ''Many of them died when whole villages were burned down.''
Long running conflicts between the pastoralist Hema and Lendu farmers mirror the relationship between the minority Tutsis and the Hutus in neighboring Rwanda -- where 800,000 people, mainly Tutsis, were killed in the 1994 genocide.
The Lendu are more numerous in the area but the Hema 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.
Arms have poured into the rebel-held east from Rwanda and Uganda who have backed the three rebel factions fighting to overthrow President Laurent Kabila. Aid workers say around 300 people were killed in a spate of fighting in October.
''This issue is one of our main concerns in the region,'' said Juan Martinez, Africa spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva. ''The main problem is land -- the problems started in June and the tensions quickly rose.''
Wamba, who is supported by the Ugandan army, said a renegade Ugandan commander had been dismissed for hiring out soldiers to Hema leaders. He said the Lendu had been supported by ''infiltrators'' loyal to Kabila.
''The war is between rich and poor. The rich Hema have some big (land) concessions left by the Belgium settlers. There is coffee and even gold in some places,'' Wamba said.
Wamba said a battalion of Ugandan troops had been stationed outside the town to try to calm the situation down but there were not enough soldiers to police the whole area.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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