DR Congo

DRC: Access to Bunia possible, Rwanda warned to stay away

KINSHASA, 10 March (IRIN) - Humanitarian access to the embattled city of Bunia in Ituri District of northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is once again possible following a takeover on Thursday by the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF) from the Union des patriotes congolais (UPC) rebel group, according to humanitarian sources.
"For the first time, we hope to have access to the population to provide them with humanitarian assistance following several years of interruptions due to violence committed by ethnic militia groups who have been fighting in the region," Michel Kassa, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the DRC, told IRIN on Monday.

He said calm returned to the city over the weekend, and its inhabitants were resuming their daily routines.

"Businesses reopened this morning. The road toward Beni, to the south, has reopened. This is the first time that soldiers of the UPDF are a stabilising factor, because they are not conniving with the local ethnic militia that has gained the upper hand in the city," he said.

Other sources reported that the UPDF had reinforced its presence in the city.

Kassa reported that large-scale pillaging had taken place in Bunia, with people of the Hema and Gegere ethnic groups being particularly victimised before the arrival of soldiers of the Lendu-Ngiti ethnic groups coalition. However, he said that many Lendu and Hema - the two primary ethnic groups battling for control in the region - were now moving freely about the city.

Precise figures regarding injuries and deaths have not yet been established, but humanitarian groups have estimated about 50 serious injuries, and "not a great many deaths".

"The largest loss of life was among soldiers of the UPC," said Kassa.

The UPC leader, Thomas Lubanga, told IRIN on Friday that after his troops had withdrawn from Bunia, Ugandan soldiers, among whose ranks he alleged were members of the Forces armees congolaises (the Kinshasa military), "went on to massacre the population and pillage the town" as Ugandan tank crews who had been mobilised for the attack sat and watched.

The Ugandan military spokesman, Maj Shaban Bantariza, dismissed the accusations as "false", while Kinshasa said that it had no troops in Ituri.

No urgent humanitarian needs, medical or otherwise, have thus far been reported, and one NGO had dispatched a team to assess the condition of the local airport, which had been shelled by the UPC on Thursday, to determine whether aircraft or only helicopters could land there.

Meanwhile on Saturday, the ambassadors to the DRC of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, UK, and USA) as well as those of Belgium and South Africa, asked Rwanda - allied to the UPC - not to get involved in Bunia, and requested that Uganda withdraw its forces. "We are insisting that Rwandan forces do not involve themselves in this conflict," the US ambassador to the DRC, Aubrey Hooks, told Radio Okapi following a meeting among the diplomats.

Tension between the UPC and Uganda - its original supporter - began in late 2002 when the rebel militia demanded the immediate withdrawal of all remaining Ugandan troops from the DRC. The situation took a precipitous turn for the worse when, on 6 January, the UPC formed an alliance with the Rwandan-backed Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie-Goma rebel movement, committing the two parties to "cooperate and support each other mutually in the domains of politics, military, and economy".

"We believe that the withdrawal of Ugandan forces from Ituri is critical for restoring calm in Ituri. Rwanda and Uganda have brought war to the Congo, and at the expense of the Congolese people," said Hooks.

"Uganda should have already withdrawn its troops from the Congo, but their continued presence is contributing to the tension. They must withdraw their forces as soon as possible," he said.

Although Uganda had withdrawn the vast majority of its troops from the DRC following the 6 September 2002 accord signed in Luanda, Angola, by DRC President Joseph Kabila and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, it did leave two battalions in the vicinity of Bunia in order to defuse tensions among ethnic militias with a view to allowing the Ituri Pacification Commission, mandated by the Luanda accord, to begin its work.

The two presidents met again on 10 - 11 February in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to amend the Luanda accord, fixing 17 March as the new deadline for withdrawal of Ugandan forces from the DRC.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Representative to the DRC, Amos Namanga Ngongi, who participated in the weekend meeting among the ambassadors, told IRIN that the diplomats had resolved to take all action necessary to defuse tensions between Uganda and Lubanga with a view to restoring peace in the region.

Following their expulsion from Bunia after several hours of intense combat, Lubanga told IRIN by satellite telephone that his troops would "continue to fight the foreign occupation", referring to Uganda.

Lubanga also admitted to having been injured during the fighting, and having received treatment at a medical centre some eight kilometres outside of Bunia.

With a view to finding a global solution for the troubled region, the seven ambassadors also said they would undertake to improve relations between Uganda and neighbouring Rwanda to defuse animosity between the erstwhile allies.

"They are going to do whatever possible to encourage Uganda and Rwanda to enter into dialogue and to resolve their differences through mediation by the UK," Ngongi said.

The melee in Bunia erupted as all parties to the inter-Congolese dialogue reached agreement on Thursday in Pretoria, South Africa, on most of the outstanding issues relating to the draft transitional constitution and unified national army.

The UPC, however, was not a party to the negotiations.

Annan on Friday had "commended the Congolese parties for the spirit of cooperation and compromise they showed in the interest of peace and stability in their country," his spokesman, Fred Eckhard, told a news conference, but said Annan was "deeply concerned" by the heavy fighting for control of Bunia and the threat it posed to the civilian populations, who had already paid an unacceptably high price in the many years of the conflict.

"It is extremely disquieting that the fighting could result in a new round of inter-ethnic violence and massacres," Eckhard said.

Annan strongly urged all parties to cease hostilities immediately and stop any acts of violence against civilians and humanitarian personnel.

"The belligerents should be reminded that the pursuit of the military option and human rights violations on any level are unacceptable," Eckhard said.


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