Congo Residents Return After Fighting
Jun. 08, 2003
BUNIA, Congo (AP) _ Carrying mattresses and pots and pans, hundreds of wary people returned to their homes Sunday in this town torn apart by tribal fighting that killed at least five people the day before.
The fighting erupted Saturday after gunmen from a Lendu tribal faction launched dawn raids on Bunia in a bid to recapture areas from the Union of Congolese Patriots, or UPC, a Hema group that controls the northeastern Congo town.
The UPC repulsed the attack, and there was no fighting Sunday. But the town remained tense and aid workers said looters continued to ransack houses.
French troops from a 1,700-strong international force began arriving in nearby Uganda, preparing to deploy in Bunia in stages over the coming weeks, officials said.
In the town _ the capital of unstable Ituri province _ UPC fighters cruised in pickup trucks and battered cars, armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
Five bodies had been recovered from Saturday's fighting, said an aid worker speaking on condition of anonymity. But that toll could rise.
``We hear reports of many dead but we can only mention the number of people we have confirmed,'' the aid worker said.
Hundreds of people left U.N. compounds in the center of Bunia and at the airport, 4 miles west of the town, where they fled to escape the fighting.
``I'm going home because I need to protect property I left there. I'm sure there will be another attack on the town, but I believe that when that occurs I will have enough time to save my life,'' said shopkeeper Mbabazi Dodova as he walked with his family carrying suitcases, plastic bags and mattresses.
At the same time, dozens of Lendu left their homes in town and headed to the compounds fearing retribution after the attack by the Lendu militia. Others went to the airport in the hope of catching a flight out of Bunia.
``There's always chaos here, no time to rest. We are always on the run and we are always dying,'' said Kabagambe Dembu as he made his way to the airport with his wife and eight children. ``After what happened yesterday I decided to leave.''
The Lendu militia was attempting to retake areas lost to the UPC about 10 days ago and to gain a foothold before the international force moves in.
Several dozen French troops arrived at Bunia's airport Friday to set up a base for the force, which is deploying under both European Union and U.N. mandates.
On Sunday, 170 French troops arrived at Entebbe airport in neighboring Uganda, and a similar number were expected later that day, said spokesman Capt. Frederic Solano. Some 300 more troops are expected in Entebbe on Monday, he added.
The troops in Entebbe will begin moving in Bunia a few days after their arrival, but it could take weeks before the whole force is deployed.
``When all the troops arrive we will move to Bunia bit by bit because big planes can't land in Bunia airport,'' Solano told reporters in Entebbe.
France is providing at least 700 troops to the force that is supposed to reinforce some 750 U.N. troops deployed in Bunia.
The U.N. troops' mandate is to protect U.N. installations and personnel. They can only fire in self-defense and have been unable to stem the violence in the region.
The international force's mandate is not yet clear, but it will be authorized to shoot to kill if necessary.
Mirage fighter jets circled over Bunia later Sunday to allow pilots to familiarize themselves with the terrain, said Col. Daniel Vollot, commander of the U.N. forces in the town.
Ituri has been wracked by fighting and massacres for several years as rival tribes and rebel factions fighting in Congo's 5-year civil war have fought for control of the province's rich mineral deposits, vast timber forests and fertile land.
Last month, fighting between the Hema and Lendu killed 500 people and forced thousands to take shelter at the U.N. compounds.