The Uganda People's Defence Forces, supported by ethnic Lendu and Ngiti militias, ousted the Union des patriotes congolais (UPC) from city of Bunia on Thursday, following several hours of intense fighting. HRW said that the UPC, generally identified with the Hema ethnic group, while opposing political and military groups associated with the Lendu and Ngiti. It added that during years of fighting for control of this resource-rich region, various local forces and their more powerful supporters had frequently targeted civilians, often on an ethnic basis, regarding them as supporters of other contenders.
"Many military operations in this area have turned into slaughter of civilians or other kinds of abuses, like rape, torture and pillage," said Alison Des Forges, the senior adviser to the Africa Division of HRW. "Military commanders and the political leaders who give them orders have the power to prevent such violations of international law and must do so."
The UPC, supported by Uganda until a falling-out in December 2002, is now allied with the Rwandan-backed Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie. Uganda and Rwanda had been struggling for control of eastern DRC since 1998, HRW recalled. It said that to counter the UPC's shift to forces allied with Rwanda, Uganda was now sponsoring a new group, the Front pour l'integration et la paix en Ituri, comprising Lendu, Alur and dissatisfied Hema, and led by Kawa Mandro Panga, a former defence minister of the UPC.
"The government of Uganda, involved through the presence of its troops, and the government of Rwanda, connected to the struggle through its close partner, RCD-Goma, must use their influence to get local actors to protect civilian lives," HRW said. "Donor nations and other African nations, like South Africa, heavily involved in diplomatic efforts to end the war, should also convey to local actors the importance of avoiding killings and other abuses of civilians."
"Everyone has a responsibility to help prevent further abuse to this devastated population," said Des Forges.
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