DR Congo

DRC: Fear of massacres as Lendus, UPDF storm Bunia, force out UPC

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KINSHASA, 6 March (IRIN) - Humanitarian organisations warned of possible massacres of ethnic Hema civilians during the night after the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF) and ethnic Ngiti and Lendu militias on Thursday stormed Bunia in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), forcing the Union des patriotes congolais (UPC) rebel movement that had controlled the city to flee.
Most of Bunia's current residents belong to the Hema ethnic group, as do most soldiers of the UPC. Long-standing tension between the Hema on the one hand, and the Ngiti and Lendu on the other hand, has been punctuated by sporadic fighting and occasional massacres by one of the other in recent years, fuelled in large part by economic interests in the region's rich natural resources, including gold.

Urgent efforts were under way by humanitarian agencies to have UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative to the DRC, Amos Namanga Ngongi, ask Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to issue direct orders to his forces to bring the Lendu militias - reportedly engaging in widespread looting of the city - under control.

The agencies were also calling for the protection of their goods, property and personnel.

Among locations reported to have been looted was a warehouse storing food provided by the UN World Food Programme for distribution by Italian NGO Coopi, as well as the offices of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"Heavy fighting, including artillery fire, erupted at about six o'clock this morning, and people have been forced to remain hidden in their homes, unable to flee," one humanitarian source told IRIN by satellite telephone from Bunia on Thursday.

"Right now, elements of the UPDF are carrying out cleanup operations of the city. They appear to have succeeded in chasing the UPC out of the city. We can now hear gunfire coming from the periphery of the city," the source added.

IRIN was unable to reach the UPC leader, Thomas Lubanga, by telephone, but according to Radio Okapi, he has fled Bunia.

Fighting between the UPDF and the UPC broke out last weekend after two UPC soldiers were killed, allegedly by soldiers of the UPDF.

In an effort to defuse rising tensions between them, the UPC signed an accord on Sunday with the UPDF, following negotiations between Lubanga and Brig Kale Kaihura, the chief political commissar of the UPDF. Under the agreement, the UPDF agreed to withdraw at once from positions it had held within Bunia, and to remain camped at the city's airport. It also agreed to open an investigation into the deaths of the two UPC soldiers.

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".

[For background on conflict in the Ituri region, see IRIN's web special at http://www.irinnews.org/webspecials/Ituri/default.asp]

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